Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

LEAVING his native Abbeydorney club to join Dublin club Cuala this year was not a decision that Darragh O’Connell took lightly but, despite some heavy soul-searching, it has really paid off.
Not only did the southsiders win their first county SHC title in 21 years but they have gone on to knock out the Offaly and Kilkenny champions and earn a crack at Oulart The Ballagh in the AIB Leinster SHC final on Sunday in Dr Cullen Park, Carlow, at 2pm.
“I certainly didn’t think this time last year I’d be sitting here talking about a Leinster club final,” said the former Kerry hurler who also threw his lot in with Dublin this year after travelling up and down to the Kingdom for four years for club and county training.
“I was on my own in the car and it was three and a half hours each way,” the 24-year-old primary teacher said. “I don’t think the travelling would have been as bad if I’d had company but eventually it just became too much.”
O’Connell has been teaching in Gaelscoil na gCloch Liath in Greystones for the past four years and when he wasn’t training at home, he had been keeping his hand in with Cuala anyway so it was a natural fit.
“I got on well with the lads, enjoyed the camaraderie from the beginning,” he said. “They’re a tight-knit group, and it’s enjoyable.
“When I transferred to Cuala my sole aim was to make their 15 for the championship. Then Ger Cunningham [Dublin manager] gave me a call around the end of April.”
He was surprised to start for Dublin against Galway in the championship but it is Cuala who have been the real surprise package of this year’s AIB Leinster club championship though not when you consider some of the Dublin senior talent at their disposal, including Mark Schutte and David Treacy.
A former Christy Ring winner with Kerry, O’Connell has been a huge defensive asset to the Dublin champions but he admits he was intimidated initially when he stepped into the set-up.
“I probably worked harder than usual to prove myself,” he admitted. “I think once you get in and show you can do it it’s not a problem.
“No matter where you go you are always going to get one or two jokes about being from Kerry and playing hurling but I am well used to it at this stage.
“The thing is North Kerry, and pockets of South Kerry, there are absolutely fantastic hurlers there.
“You are surrounded by counties probably winning All-Irelands in the past couple of years even so it’s always difficult.
“You are probably playing a level above yourself all the time but that’s the only way you are going to improve.”
He believes there are a lot of hurlers at Ring Cup level that could similarly make the step up to Liam MacCarthy like himself.
“I’ve got to play Shinty for Ireland and you get to play hurling with lads from Westmeath and Carlow, what they call ‘second tier’ counties.
“There are hurlers all over the place,” he notes. “There are hurlers from Kerry who are able to make the step up. I just think it’s very difficult to bring it all together though”.