Hurling chameleon O'Connell enjoying Cuala's culture club
By John Harrington
You’d be forgiven that for thinking that Darragh O’Connell might have suffered from some culture shock when he transferred from his home club Abbeydorney in Kerry to Cuala in Dublin.
One is based in a small rural community in North Kerry, the other a sprawling ‘super-club’ in south Dublin that has close to 2,000 active members they draw from around 1,000 households.
But what O’Connell found is that no matter how far you travel and whatever your surroundings, the GAA has a way of making you feel at home.
“I think every GAA club in the country is the same,” said O’Connell. “You've the same characters, the same people that give up so much time to the club, volunteering and trying to get a team ready for the weekend.
“From the people that wash the jersies, I don't think there's any difference between a country club and a city club. It's the same ethos, it's the same people that give up their time for the cause.
“They're coming through and their father is playing or family is involved and it just feeds from one generation to the next.”
O’Connell didn’t make the decision to transfer to Cuala lightly.
He was hugely committed to the Abbeydorney cause and a key player for the Kerry hurlers, but in the end the constant commute from Dublin to Kerry proved too draining for the primary school teacher.
“I travelled up and down for two years and then I knew some of the lads there with Cuala, I was in with them during the week training, trying to keep myself fit and things when I was travelling,” said O’Connell.
“I suppose it was natural progression then to transfer in. Being a teacher, I might have had the months at home, but it’s very difficult really to play with a team when there’s that amount of travelling involved.
“You’re up and down, your house is in Dublin like, I might have had a couple of weeks at home, but I spent a lot more time on the road.”
There was no ill-feeling in Abbeydorney when he made the switch, and at every major game that Cuala play you can be guaranteed there will be a few north Kerry accents in the crowd roaring him on.
Cuala are certainly glad he made the switch because since he signed the transfer forms he’s played a key role in the three Dublin championships, two Leinster Championships, and one All-Ireland championship they’ve won in the last three years.
He’s also become an important player for the Dublin county hurling team, and believes removing the regular commutes to Kerry from his training diary has helped him maximise his potential as a hurler.
“When you're doing that much travelling it's very hard to get yourself 100 per cent right for the game at the weekend,” said O’Connell.
“You might have been travelling up and down during the week and it's obviously difficult then as well.
“So, yeah, I think everything, as in you're better prepared than anything else to help the group or help the team.”
Getting the best from himself has always been something of an obsession for the clean-living O’Connell who had a reputation down in Abbeydorney for being something of a ‘health freak’.
“I try to keep a wrap on things alright,” he said. “I suppose I don't drink which is a help. That's a start anyway.
“I'm not sure I'm as much as a health freak as may have been said. If you're trying to perform and get the best out of yourself, you're trying to prepare as best as you possibly can.
“I don't think I'm any different to the rest of the lads that's there in the group. At this stage every team across the country, no matter who you are, if you're trying to perform to your best at the weekend you have to be at your best during the week.”
Perhaps that’s why O’Connell has been such a good fit at Cuala, because he’s joined a generation of hurlers who are also driven to maximise their potential and win all they can while they can.
“I suppose any team like that that has talented players and a togetherness and a unity between management and players, you're trying to get the most out of yourself.
“I think we're all looking at it that way and then as an individual if you can bring in that to the collective it's just about striving to get better as a group.
“That's what we've done over the past while. Taking it one step at a time.”
The next step in that journey is Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final against Galway champions Liam Mellows.
Cuala are warm favourites to come out on top and make it one step closer to winning a second All-Ireland title in a row, but O’Connell has never been the type to get too far ahead of himself.
“You look at the Galway club’s record in this championship and you look how competitive the Galway championship is," he said.
“Any club side that comes out of Galway, they’ve always challenged for honours and Liam Mellows are going to be no different, they pose a huge challenge on Saturday.
“I suppose it's like anything, you're just trying to take it one game at a time. You're not looking ahead because if you look ahead you'll get caught somewhere along the line.
“We're just trying to get ourselves focused on getting ourselves physically and mentally ready for the next game. I think that's just been it, really, there hasn't been any secret to it.
“It's just about focusing on the now and trying to get better in every training session and then bring it into the games at the weekend.”