Thursday 20 October 2016

Kerry ace on Cuala glory trail

O'Connell seeks perfect end to a fantastic debut year in the capital - by creating Leinster history with his adopted club

Darragh O'Connell at yesterday's AIB Leinster Club SHC final launch. The Dalkey club against
Wexford's Oulart-The Ballagh this Sunday in Dr Cullen Park, Carlow. For exclusive content throughout the AIB Club Championships follow @AIB_GAA and facebook.com/AIBGAA
Darragh O'Connell at yesterday's AIB Leinster Club SHC final launch. The Dalkey club against Wexford's Oulart-The Ballagh this Sunday in Dr Cullen Park, Carlow. For exclusive content throughout the AIB Club Championships follow @AIB_GAA and facebook.com/AIBGAA

Heard the one about the Kerry hurler who upped sticks and ventured to the capital in pursuit of Leinster small ball glory?

If that sounds like the intro to a clichéd punchline, we better put you straight. This is no joking matter - not for Cuala and not for Darragh O'Connell.

Yes, he is a Kerryman and he is a hurler and is proud to belong to two camps which, contrary to stereotype, are not mutually exclusive.

But now he's a Dublin hurler too, having switched club allegiance at the start of the season from his native Abbeydorney to the Dalkey-based Cuala ... and making such a rapid impression that he made his second championship 'debut', this time for the Dubs, against Galway in early summer.

Now it's early winter and O'Connell is still motoring. Leaving aside his talent with a hurl, and Olympian acceleration, he also appears possessed of a supreme sense of timing.


Think of it: he joins Cuala and, in year one, they win their first Dublin SHC title in 21 years. Then, not content with their bounty, they go and reach a Leinster club final courtesy of two eye-catching victories - away to the champions of Offaly and at home to the Kilkenny kingpins.

Just once before have Cuala travelled so far into a season - 26 years ago. Just once has a Dublin senior club conquered Leinster - Crumlin way back in the 1979/80 season. And yet the capital's breakthrough champions of 2015 will start as 8/15 favourites against Wexford's battle-hardened Oulart-The Ballagh in Netwatch Cullen Park this Sunday (2.00).

Time to pinch yourself?

"It's been good," he confirms, with just a hint of understatement. "I certainly didn't think, this time last year, I'd be sitting here talking about a Leinster club final."

The irony is that O'Connell's switch of club and county allegiance coincided with a quantum leap for the Kerry hurlers, for whom success in the Christy Ring Cup this year brought with it promotion to the senior championship - they'll play in Leinster's preliminary round-robin group next summer.

Their former star man, now 24, insists there are no regrets. A teacher in Gaelscoil Na gCloch Liath, Greystones, he had been hurling senior for Kerry since 2010 but living on Dublin's southside since the following year. With all the venturing back and forth, something eventually had to give.

"I think the travelling had just become too much," he explained, speaking at yesterday's AIB Leinster final press briefing in Dublin.

"Travelling up and down every weekend, and then when it came to important games in the league or championship you were travelling down during the week as well.

"So you were sitting into the car after work, and travelling maybe three and a half hours on your own, and three-and-a-half hours back up on your own again."

It wasn't just mentally draining. All that time spent in your car means "you are not getting 100 per cent out of yourself. You are not recovering properly. You are not preparing for games properly. Along with that I had also gone back to college with Setanta College, so I was kind of working and doing part-time study at the same time. From that side of it, it was my own decision at the end of last year to transfer."

Cuala were the perfect fit. He now lives in Stillorgan but was based in Shankill when he first moved to Dublin. Even then he would join up with the club for training: "I got on well with the lads, enjoyed the camaraderie from the beginning."

On transferring to Cuala, his "sole aim" was to make their championship '15' ... but then Dublin boss Ger Cunningham "gave me a call, around the end of April, beginning of May." By the end of May he was making his competitive debut, off the bench, in the drawn Leinster opener with Galway at Croke Park. Six days later, he was parachuted in for his first Sky Blue start in the Tullamore replay.


"Of course I was very surprised, I didn't expect that," he confirms. Nor did he anticipate the maroon onslaught of those first ten minutes - a real baptism of fire. Overall, though, he relished his unexpected year-one introduction to top tier hurling.

"It was a great experience, I learned a lot. It was disappointing the way we got knocked out, a tough day against Waterford, but the run with the club now has been brilliant," he says.

O'Connell's homeplace of Abbeydorney is part of that north Kerry small ball oasis in a land of football plenty. Hardcore hurling. But now he has immersed himself in a bigger pool and is loving it. He has enjoyed Kerry's progress from afar while stressing there are no "what ifs" in his mind.

"I suppose I'm representing Dublin now and I'm representing Cuala and I'm trying to do that to the best of my ability," he reflects. "But then again, I was absolutely delighted with the (Kerry) guys and what they did this year: especially to beat Antrim in Parnell Park was probably the big one, and then to go on and win a second Christy Ring was brilliant."

To win on Sunday, he concludes, would be huge for Cuala and would also crown what has already been a "fantastic" year personally. Who knows, there might even be a few pockets of north Kerry watching in Carlow this Sunday. "I was born and bred in Kerry so a certain part of me still feels like I'm representing them too," he concludes.

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