Unconventional Podge Collins back as one of Banner's key influencers
'Now here is Podge, turning on to his right-hand side. When Podge was in school he couldn't hit the ball off his right-hand side!'
The words of Ger Loughnane in the RTé studio in September, 2013, in the course of a semi-eulogy on hurling after Clare and Cork had drawn the All-Ireland final. The moment he was referring was arguably Collins' most jaw-dropping demonstration of point-scoring, when he ran with the ball in one direction, stalled, and, seemingly cornered, evaded capture in one wheeling movement before striking off his right with back to goal - you were still trying to figure out what he was trying to do when the ball went over the bar; right above the black spot for added effect.
In the game that Clare fashioned, Collins was nearly indispensable, a bundle of energy, a player that broke conventions, who hurled without inhibition. He wasn't a prolific scorer but he had a presence that Clare have missed over most of the years since. When he came on as a late first-half sub for Conor McGrath in the match against Tipperary last Sunday, there would have been some reservations among the Clare audience. He hadn't shown the form of 2013 in the intervening years, even if there were a medley of mitigating factors: suspension, football, serious injury.
But in the time he had on the field he rolled back the years; he proved the difference, the game-changer. Three points from play were embellished when he became the key figure in the game's decisive passage of play. Tipperary's near goal miss at one end triggered the counter-attacking movement: John Conlon offloading to Collins, who made the ground that transformed limited risk into a goalscoring chance, who had the timing to intersect perfectly with the support runner, Ian Galvin. The substitute had still a bit to do, taking a touch on his hurl and then making a sideways movement that completely wrong-footed Tipp's cover. He finished coolly. But Collins had made the chance possible. In that passage he revived himself as a vital creator and architect of Clare scores.
Collins didn't start or see any of the Cork game in this year's Munster Championship. He replaced McGrath after an hour in the win over Waterford but today's match against Limerick sees him restored to the starting line-up. Since the apex of his and Clare's hurling's fortunes in 2013, his career hit a series of bumps, beginning with a red card for interfering with David Redmond's helmet in the drawn qualifier match with Wexford in Ennis in 2014. Suspended for the replay, he watched as Clare lost their All-Ireland title in Wexford Park the following weekend.
In 2014, he attempted to combine Gaelic football and hurling, with his father Colm in charge of the football team, which drew criticism and exasperation from some hurling quarters. But after playing against Wexford that year he didn't hurl again for Clare until a 2016 Division 1B league game against Kerry.
In 2015, he decided to focus solely on football, not declaring for the county hurling team, having said at one stage that if one side ever put pressure on him to decide on their code, he would choose the other.
His season was cut short when he suffered an early summer cruciate ligament injury that finished his playing prospects for the rest of 2015. On his return in 2016 he volunteered for both codes again. He played in that year's National Hurling League final win, replaced after 54 minutes of the replay, and in the loss to Waterford in the Munster semi-final in early June he was taken off after 58 minutes. He scored 1-3 in a facile qualifier win over Laois, then 0-3 in the next qualifier round win over Limerick. Against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-finals he was taken off after 49 minutes, scoreless. There was also an appearance in the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the Clare football team against Kerry at Croke Park.
Last year he devoted himself solely to hurling and played three championship games, replaced in two, including the Munster semi-final win over Limerick when Ian Galvin went on instead of a scoreless Collins after 59 minutes. He was replaced after 52 minutes in the loss to Tipp in the All-Ireland quarter-final, again failing to score.
He and Tony Kelly were two of the more instrumental figures in Clare's All-Ireland win five years ago, but they also had Conor McGrath in scintillating form. McGrath's recent substitutions tend to deflate some of Clare's recent optimism. McGrath remains a brilliant hurler whose form is capable of turning, a player not helped by veering far out the field to get on the ball. With Collins in the same team he might not have to roam as much and can offer a more sustained goal threat. The lack of ball to the Clare full-forward line was noticeable for a long stretch of the game against Tipperary.
No team continues to win doing things the same way. But Clare needed some of their old influencers to rediscover the form of 2013 in order to reignite. The evidence after the last day is that Collins, for one, is somewhere in the same ballpark that he occupied when he lit up the championship five years ago.
THE ENNIS FACTOR
Since 1945, Clare have proven notoriously difficult for Limerick to beat in Ennis, the Shannonsiders losing five out of six championship matches played there. The sole exception was their win in 1990.
June 14, 1953, Munster quarter-final: Clare 10-8, Limerick 1-1: Jimmy Smyth went on the rampage with 6-4, a record for the Munster Championship. Limerick’s first championship loss to Clare since 1914.
July 2, 1972, Munster semi-final: Clare 3-11, Limerick 2-10: Goals from Noel Casey and Jimmy McNamara inside three minutes set Clare on their way. Limerick didn’t score until the 19th minute and their goals came late in the game.
June 1, 1986, Munster quarter-final: Clare 2-14, Limerick 0-14: An absorbing match, Clare were inspired by Sean Stack. Limerick led by seven points after 15 minutes before first-half goals from Gerry McInerney (penalty) and Syl Dolan altered the game’s course.
May 13, 1990, Munster quarter-final: Limerick 2-16, Clare 1-5: Shane Fitzgibbon was Limerick’s top scorer from play with 1-3 as they breezed to an easy win. It was Limerick’s first championship win in Ennis for 45 years.
May 23, 1993, Munster quarter-final: Clare 3-16, Limerick 3-12: Clare pulled off a classic ambush to register their first championship win since 1988, with 1-5 from Ger O’Loughlin. At one stage they led by 14 points.
June 18, 2006, All-Ireland qualifier 1st round: Clare 2-21, Limerick 0-10: Limerick reached the league final, but their form collapsed in the summer. The first Limerick point from play didn’t arrive until the 63rd minute. Later manager Joe McKenna stood down. Seamus Hickey is the only survivor still hurling.
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