Saturday 21 April 2018

Brothers embrace club cause on two fronts

Collins family's dual ethos has transformed the fortunes of Cratloe, writes Marie Crowe

Podge Collins: ‘I thought I’d never play for Clare’
Podge Collins: ‘I thought I’d never play for Clare’
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Over 20 hurleys line the walls of the porch in the Collins family home. They all carry the same navy blue grip, but on top of each one, written in black marker, is a different name, P Collins, S Collins or D Collins.

The three brothers reside with their parents Colm and Catherine in their two-storey home nestled in the hills of Cratloe in Clare. Podge, Seán and David, all hurlers, all footballers, all athletes.

Although each one has played both hurling and football for Clare, Podge is the most recognisable name. He's the middle child, 21, an All Star and an All-Ireland medal winner at under 21 and senior level. He starred for Clare all through the summer and was honoured with a spot on the shortlist for both senior and young hurler of the year. He's one of Clare's most prodigious talents and no one is more surprised at this than Podge himself.

"I thought I'd never play for Clare," he says. "I was at a Munster final about nine years ago, Cork and Waterford were playing. I was looking at the player profiles in the programme. Most of the players were 6' 2" and 6' 3", I said to my mam that I didn't think I'd ever make it. I was about four foot nothing at the time."

Little did he know that 10 years later Seán óg ó hAilpín – one of the players he watched that day – would admit that seeing Podge's name in the All-Ireland programme reaffirmed to him that he made the right decision to retire. The former Cork captain said he didn't know how he would mark a player like him.

When Podge mentioned to his mother that he didn't think he'd make it at inter-county level, he wasn't referring to just hurling. Even back then he was a dual player and had dreams of playing both hurling and football for Clare.

In the late 1990s, the Collins family moved from Caherdavin in Limerick to Cratloe in Clare. At that time there was a small bit of football in the east Clare village but not much. However when they arrived that all changed.

Colm, the current Clare football manager, is from Kilmihil in west Clare, a football heartland. He took over the under 14 team and very quickly the game took off in the parish.

His sons Seán and Podge were in the ranks as well as All Star hurlers Conor McGrath and Conor Ryan. Straight away they got to finals in the 'B' and 'C' divisions. They were a promising bunch of young lads and by the time they reached under 16 they were the county 'A' champions. Their success didn't stop there and they dominated at minor and under 21 too.

Simultaneously the same group of lads played hurling, but they never won an 'A' county title at underage level. Instead the likes of Ballyea and their neighbours Sixmilebridge usually shared the spoils.

There is little football anywhere in east Clare, it's very much a game played in the west of the county. Cratloe is unique, one of the few villages in the country which can excel in both codes at senior level.

It's a small parish with one shop and two pubs and would be described by most familiar with it as a modern hurling stronghold. They have six representatives on the Clare senior hurling team, Clare legend Brian Lohan lives in the parish and the GAA field is regularly filled with young kids honing their skills. But despite being viewed as a traditional hurling area, football in the parish has gone from strength to strength. So much so that they have qualified for next Saturday's county final and are favourites to win. The three brothers have a lot to do with this. David who is 20 has featured in most games this year. A few years ago he had a back operation to fix scoliosis, and that set him back a bit, but he is making up the ground with every passing year.

Going back to football after a summer of hurling has whetted Podge's appetite for the big ball. This renewed hunger combined with his father being manager of the Clare senior team has opened his mind to a dual role next year. His brother Seán, who missed out on a Celtic Cross medal because of injury, is also considering it.

"We will probably give both a go for the first few months and see how it goes but it might not work out," said Seán. "I'm working in Galway and driving up and down is tough going. You would have to see if you are able. The two of us are big into the football so it's not as if we are just doing it because of our father. We enjoy the football, it's such a big part of our life. Obviously when there is blood involved it's a tough decision but I suppose since Colm is our father it's not doing him any harm either."

Podge concedes it would be very hard for Clare to win a football All-Ireland, almost impossible. But he's heard all the stories about 1992 when they were crowned Munster champions and believes that they are capable of pulling off a shock again. However, the seeded draw won't make things any easier for Clare.

"It's ridiculous that they can introduce one rule for a certain province and not have it elsewhere. To win a Munster final you have to beat the top two teams. It's very hard."

Colm has left the final decision with his sons. Obviously they have discussed it and he'd like them to play both but there is a lot to sort out, starting with agreement from Clare hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald.

In practical terms, there would be no point in doing a pre-season with two teams and as the hurling league fixtures have yet to be announced they will hold off for a while on making a commitment.

However, they are both well used to serving several masters, especially Podge. In his Leaving Cert year he played minor hurling and football for Clare, senior, minor and under 21 hurling and football for the club along with Harty Cup hurling for his school. At one stage, he recalls, he was playing for 12 different teams.

In recent weeks the club fixture pile-up in Clare reached extremes. It was a frustrating time for all involved in the football championship and Podge feels it needs to be sorted out.

"It's hard to look back at it and say anything negative because of the way the year worked out for Clare. But there was definitely time there in the early stages to run off some club games.

"I think that the GAA should police the fixtures. There should be a proper calendar so that you don't have matches running into November and then have issues delaying Munster club games."

"It's very hard on club players who are training and looking after themselves for seven months and they might only play one match in that time. Then they try run off a load in three weeks."

Podge is very dedicated to his club; he speaks passionately about how he loves representing Cratloe. Last summer he was in a predicament when they needed his services for a club game. Clare had just beaten Laois on a Saturday in the qualifiers and club games for most players were forbidden.

Cratloe were also scheduled to play Inagh/Kilnamona that same day in a Clare Cup game that they needed to win by nine points to qualify for the semi-final. Podge along with a couple of other Cratloe players from the Clare panel decided to play.

Their opponents got a point with the last puck of the game and Cratloe won the game by eight. Their efforts had been in vain and they had a lot of explaining to do to Davy Fitzgerald. But the club means the world to Podge and sometimes it has to come first.

It's where his career began and it's where it will finish and even though he is only 21 he has awareness beyond his years. His attitude to preparation and training reflects this. His diet is meticulous. A weekly shop can take three hours as he spends time consulting with his nutritionist and picking the foods that are best for him. Sleep is part of his preparation, while on co-op in Cork he worked on putting a routine in place. It's the little things that make the difference.

The Collins family sitting room is home to the family trophy cabinet. It's already full of awards, medals and plaques. Undoubtedly in the next few years many more will be added. The lads are just getting started.

Sunday Independent

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