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Schmidt confident ex-hurler Sweetnam will stay cool as he takes Test rugby 'plunge'

‘People have dipped their toe in and now they’ve got to plunge,’ says Joe Schmidt of the new caps making the grade this weekend.
Nov 10th 2017, 7:10 AM 20,489 16

AMID THE RUSH to decry, defend or just simply discuss at length the inclusion of Bundee Aki in Ireland’s team to face South Africa, the late surge of Darren Sweetnam onto the bench has flown well under the radar.

The Munster wing has looked destined for the international stage for some time, but he was a late-comer to specialise on the rugby pathway.

Instead, he persisted juggling the oval ball with inter-county hurling until he was 19, most notably adding his talents (and a point) to Cork’s ultimately fruitless 2012 All-Ireland semi-final challenge against Galway in Croke Park.

Darren Sweetnam Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

His athletic prowess was undeniable, but soon so were the stresses that the rigours of playing two sports can put on the body. Munster U20 coach at the time, Greig Oliver persuaded Sweetnam to hang up his hurl and helmet that summer, swapping one red jersey and one 15-man game for another as he accepted the offer of an academy contract with his native province.

As he has grown in stature on Munster’s wing, the same talents that helped him stand out in a Jimmy Barry Murphy midfield made him a potent aerial weapon for Rassie Erasmus to get kickers and playmakers aiming at.

“I was probably more nervous coming on against Cardiff than playing the semi-final against Galway,” Sweetnam said of his first competitive appearance for Munster in Cork two and a half years ago.

The nerves will be jangling again tonight as he joins Joe Schmidt’s squad in the Shelbourne and he will be called upon to face the Springboks at some point tomorrow. Schmidt, however, doesn’t see Munster’s young player of the year as a man who will be put off by the occasion.

Darren Sweetnam and Robbie Henshaw Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He seems a real calm, settled sort of guy,” Schmidt said after naming his matchday squad at Carton House yesterday.

“He doesn’t get ruffled and I think a lot of times when you make errors stepping up to the next level, yes, it’s more physical, yes, you’ve got less time and space, so there’s more urgency to make decisions and you can be unsettled by that.

“He’s pretty calm, he’s got some good footwork, he knows where the try line is, he finishes well, he’s got some good defensive habits and some that we’ll keep working on. He’s a package that’s interesting and he’ll be looking to become a more complete package through these three weeks.”

Sweetnam’s gain is a direct consequence of misfortune for Keith Earls, who suffered a hamstring injury in training on Tuesday and looks set to miss the rest of Ireland’s November schedule. However, the Dunmanway man hasn’t sprung out of nowhere having first been taken into Ireland camp in the wake of last year’s win over the All Blacks.

Those fleeting experiences will have been vital in showing Schmidt at close quarters that he is trustworthy at the highest level. The same is true for the notorious Aki, who was brought into a mini camp early this season. As an inside centre, the outrageously talented Connacht man will have more impact on the moving parts of Ireland’s gameplan, but Schmidt feels any adaptation from Aki or Sweetnam will come down to rhythm rather than knowing a set of rules for playing under the Kiwi.

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I don’t think it’s ever a need to necessarily adapt. We have a rhythm in the way we play, every team has systems, they’re not necessarily overly diverse.

“With Bundee, he’s slotted in really well but I don’t think it’s any different for Darren Sweetnam or anyone else. Darren’s been in one or two other camps, Bundee came in for just the single day we had earlier in the season. So people have dipped their toe in and now they’ve got to plunge in and it’s a pretty deep pool first up.

“One of the things that is good about Bundee and a few of the other players that have come in is they are quite instinctive players. Jacob Stockdale, his instinct is to carry and to be very strong and try to take the outside break and if that’s what he sees that’s what we want to back himself doing.”

Having played the perhaps the most instinct-reliant sport of all in Croke Park, the Test arena in the Aviva Stadium should come naturally to Sweetnam too.

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