Darren Sweetnam arrives as the sum of all his sporting parts
Former Cork hurler hasn’t looked back since deciding on a rugby career
Darren Sweetnam made his Ireland debut off the bench in Saturday’s opening autumn international against South Africa at the Aviva Stadium . Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Sometimes it is the nature of the journey from here to there that defines how it was you got there in the first place. Sometimes what seems like the end point is just the beginning.
When Darren Sweetnam entered Ireland’s game against the Springboks on 75 minutes for his international debut, one chapter of his journey was completed. He can now think about its continuance.
Back in the nursery grounds of Bandon Grammar School, the Irish under-15 badminton and the Irish under-16 hockey teams were his focus.
Playing rugby in Lansdowne Road was so impossibly removed that even in the fantasy factory of the schoolyard, it would have been preposterous for that idea to enter his head.
“No didn’t even occur to me,” he says. “But yeah, Jesus, so surreal, the best feeling in the world. I never thought I’d get a cap. But look . . . I won’t get ahead of myself.”
After the hockey and badminton and before Joe Schmidt, there was Jimmy Barry-Murphy and the 2012 hurling championship. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway at Croke Park in August 2012, Cork manager Barry-Murphy replaced Conor Lehane in the 46th minute with his prodigy from Dunmanway.
Sweetnam had made it to the pinnacle of hurling but he had been playing under-20 rugby and while his instincts were telling him hurling was the future, a phone call from his under-20 rugby coach set the wheels in motion for another seismic shift in a career that had already blossomed at just 19.
“I was playing with Cork seniors at the time so I’d made it to as far as you can go really. It was like a big risk moving over to the rugby but Greg rang me and he said ‘would you meet me one more time?’
“So I met him in the Cork airport hotel and he persuaded me to stay on and I got offered an academy contract then. So I kinda . . . I never looked back after that.
“I got goose bumps running out there with the smoke and the fireworks,” he adds. “It was something I hadn’t experienced before. I loved it. It’s five years now since I played in Croke Park. Obviously both are incredible.”
In the early days his eclectic mix was part fervent sports fan, what the school offered and what his father’s interests were. But he believes all of the sports led him to where he is now, the different demands of the hand eye co-ordination in hockey and badminton, the high ball and catching of hurling and football and the physical nature and positioning in rugby – even if Bandon Grammar were only modestly successful with the oval ball.
Perhaps, more than anything, Sweetnam adds flesh to the notion that athletic ability is usually at the heart of every sporting story.
“I suppose I played it all, hockey, hurling, badminton,” he says. “Like my dad was into sport. He played hockey and he played a bit of rugby in school. I used to go to a lot of the matches when I was younger. I got a sort of feel for it then. He went to Bandon Grammar and then he played hockey for Bandon.
“Like in the hurling and football the high ball, it’s very similar and in hockey and badminton footwork. It’s very important in rugby to be agile. I think they all have had some effect and have had some crossover.”
Both Barry-Murphy, who understands what it is to straddle sports, and former Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham were “excellent,” he says. Both of the hurling grandees sent text messages to Sweetnam before Saturday’s debut. But there is no looking over his shoulder.
“Yeah, it backs my decision to go with rugby at the end of the day,” he says. “It was good to get my hands on the ball and then we scored over on the other side, Stockdale, so that was nice.
“Everyone really has been great, Johnny Sexton. Keith Earls has been so good to me. He has gone through every move with me. Even when he got injured he came out and made sure I was okay with everything. Andrew Conway as well was telling me how it feels and was getting me ready for the occasion.
“I went into the academy. I was kind of raw,” he adds. “You develop as you go. I’m here now. So it’s nice.”
An end point and starting point. Another new path.