Saturday night’s GUINNESS Series encounter between Ireland and South Africa was an unforgettable experience for Darren Sweetnam, as the Munster winger made his international debut in a comprehensive 38-3 success for the hosts.
An injury to his provincial team-mate Keith Earls opened up a space in the matchday squad for Darren Sweetnam, who previously represented his country at the Under-20 grade. He had to wait until the 74th minute to enter the fray, but with a massive cheer accompanying his arrival, he was thrilled to be given a chance to showcase his talent at the highest level.
“It was absolutely incredible. It was all surreal. Growing up as a young kid in Ireland, all you want to do is put on that green jersey. I was absolutely thrilled, and there was a good old roar, so I enjoyed that as well,” said the 24-year-old from Dunmanway, Co. Cork.
There has been great interest in Sweetnam ever since he was signed to the Munster Academy back in 2012, having already excelled as a senior inter-county hurler. The former Bandon Grammar School student featured for the Cork hurlers in the same year that he made the permanent switch to rugby, coming off the bench during the Rebels’ All-Ireland SHC semi-final defeat to Galway at Croke Park.
While he acknowledged that playing at a packed-out Aviva Stadium is comparable in certain ways to his time with the Cork hurlers, the build-up to Saturday’s GUINNESS Series clash was completely different to anything he has witnessed in his sporting career to date.
“I haven’t experienced anything (like that). I was getting goosebumps running out there with the fireworks, and the smoke and stuff. It was something I’ve never experienced before. It was incredible, I loved every bit of it. It’s five years now since I’ve played in Croke Park, but obviously both (the Aviva and Croke Park) are incredible.”
In the lead up to the game, Sweetnam was eager to get advice from a number of his team-mates about what to expect on his first foray into the international arena. Jonathan Sexton and Andrew Conway helped him to feel at ease, and even though he was ruled out of contention himself, Earls also played a key role behind the scenes.
Sweetnam acknowledged: “The Munster lads have been great, everyone really. Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls has been so good to me. He just goes through every move and stuff. Even when he got injured, he came over to me, and making sure I was okay with everything.
“Andrew Conway as well, just telling me how it feels and getting me ready for the occasion. They’ve all been great. There’s a great bunch of lads around me.”
With the second game of the GUINNESS Series – against Fiji – taking place next Saturday, it is expected that Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will make significant changes to the starting XV. This may well see Sweetnam coming in as a starter, but with a week of training ahead of him, the Cork Constitution clubman is not looking too far ahead.
“Ah look, I won’t get ahead of myself now, I’ll just go back training now on Monday, work hard and hopefully (I get selected). We’ll see what happens. I never thought I’d get a cap, so I was absolutely delighted. I just need to keep working hard now, and keep working with the lads around me and keep going,” he added.