ONE OF THE bright lights of Munster’s opening handful of games has been the breakthrough of winger Darren Sweetnam. Recognised for his background in Cork hurling, the 23 year old has applied his skill-set remarkably into the rugby world and following a couple of years of progression, it’s now time to cut him loose into the faces of European giants.
For me Sweetnam’s outstanding attribute is his defence. The way the young man reads the game from his wing and times his tackles (many of which are technically excellent) is second to none. Jacques Nienaber’s defensive system puts a massive emphasis on line speed and aggression and while it has seen the reds smash any on-coming traffic in the narrow lanes, the consequential risk involves the wide men becoming exposed upon the throw of skip passes or the likes. However, ‘Sweets’ has prospered in these overlap situations to date, showing off his defensive nous rather than shying from the responsibility. In the games against Scarlets and Cardiff in particular he excelled with his brave last-ditch efforts. In the Munster wing department, only Keith Earls rivals him for sheer defence and he won’t be afraid to take down the JP Pietersons or Joe Rockocokos of this world come cup time – just magnificent.
As mentioned at the top, the skill-set of Sweetnam is also something else. Time and time again we have seen him drift in from his wing and pull out an outrageous offload from his little bag of tricks to assist his teammates. I’ve made the point before that maybe he’d be better at fullback than wing as he appears more technically gifted than quick, but that is seriously no insult to his pace. Even competitor for a back three place Andrew Conway enthusiastically told of Darren’s magic to the Independent earlier this week:
“You would see the odd offload – I remember he had a ridiculous one against Ospreys in Cork and no-one knew was that just a ridiculously good offload or is that standard. That’s pretty standard now. We were having a backs meeting the other day and Felix Jones said, ‘if Sweetnam gets the ball all the other players have to expect an offload
It’s not just the offload though, aerial catching is another major strength of his. He never takes his eye off the ball and has the perfect physique to leap and hold off opponents as he battles for possession in the air. Indeed, I’m sure Sweetnam’s just as confident about winning each duel he jumps into, as the fans are – or at least so it seems. The young man consistently offers the kind of play that Joe Schmidt will only be smiling about as he realises the potential of the Bandon Grammar man.
As his history suggests – playing Cork senior hurling, underrage hockey for Ireland and professional rugby for Munster, Darren is a naturally gifted sports star with supreme hand-eye coordination and you just have to look forward to seeing him continue on his creative ways in red. Baller.
Munster’s back three options are quality but scarce. In reality, it is likely that one of usual favourites Zebo, Earls or Conway will pick up an injury before Munster kick off against Racing and then Sweetnam would surely play – but for me, he deserves to start regardless.
Simon Zebo is at a stage where he will either be gunning for that fullback shirt to spiral himself to new heights or stick to being the ever so prolific winger that he is on the left. Keith Earls on the other hand is a dead cert for one of the flanks should the centres stay fit, leaving Andrew Conway as the only competitor to Sweetnam whether at 15 or 14.
As far as I’m concerned Sweetnam is superior to Conway in every technical aspect of his game, be it ball skills, kicking or in the tackle. Yes, Conway brings that injection of pace and agility but his competitor does the basics with more purpose and his creativity makes amends for his marginally lesser footwork. It’s likely that Rassie Erasmus will be on the same line of thought as early signs indicate that he is in favour of a kicking orientated game – Conor Murray’s box-kicking delivery for Sweetnam should work a treat. While matters at pitch level would likely see Simon Zebo prospering by running lines down the right flank of the similarly gifted Corkman.
It’s not that Conway isn’t a real asset to the Munster back division, he is, but the argument is purely to introduce a younger, more intelligent natural ball player who’s potential is needed to be realised as soon as possible.
He brings a breath of fresh air to the side without ever being a liability when inexperience would count against most.
A star in the making.