Monday 23 April 2018

'I tried to get stronger so I wouldn't be pushed off the ball'

Podge Collins talks to Christy O'Connor about Clare hurling and Cratloe dreams

Podge Collins enjoyed a stunning year of success with Clare's hurlers
Podge Collins enjoyed a stunning year of success with Clare's hurlers
Podge Collins in action for his club Cratloe

Christy O'Connor

Eight days ago, Podge Collins had an operation in Ennis Hospital to remove his wisdom teeth.

The pain was grinding into his jaw bone after the surgery, ripping through his face. He was told not to eat for 24 hours but Collins weighed up the doctor's advice and arrived at his own conclusions. He needed to get his strength back. Fast. He went home and wolfed three salmon fillets.

In a season of endless targets and reaching the highest standards, all of it coalesced to create something magical, Collins just hasn't the time or the inclination to wait.

Next goal. Next target. Next challenge. Next game. Bring it on. He has been programmed to process everything in that format.

When Cratloe won a first Clare senior football title in their 126-year history, Collins instantly suppressed the urge to celebrate and let his emotions run wild. He had been man of the match. His father was the manager. His two brothers were also part of Cratloe's new history.

The Munster club semi-final against Ballinacourty was less than 24 hours later. That was the dominant thought in Collins' mind.

PRIORITY

"As soon as the final whistle went, we knew that we had to refocus again straight away," said Collins. "That was our priority. It was definitely my priority."

The squad went to the Cryotherapy clinic in Ennis before going to the pool for a recovery session. After their meal, they went straight home. The following day, they became just the fifth Clare side to reach a Munster club football final. In Cratloe, they have become used to creating history in bundles.

Their six starting forwards are part of the Clare hurling panel. Three of them -- Collins, Conor Ryan and Conor McGrath -- are All Stars. Situated right on the Limerick border in south-east Clare, Cratloe is a footballing outpost in a hurling heartland. The club haven't just flown in the face of tradition. They have created it.

Collins was reared in that process. His father Colm won a Clare football championship with Kilmihil in 1980.

When the family later moved to Cratloe, Colm Collins began to reignite a flame which had been barely flickering.

Before long, it was blazing. A remarkable generation of talented young dual players began gobbling up underage 'A' football titles under Collins' guidance.

They contested three of the four senior hurling finals between 2009 and 2012 but Cratloe's footballing culture was equally strong during the period. They just couldn't crack Kilmurry-Ibrickane's code.

When they finally did this season, it blew the door wide open.

"We always knew we had a good team," says Podge. "We had come close in other years but Kilmurry had always got on top of us. Even though we didn't knock them out this year, that win gave us huge confidence."

Football was always part of Collins' DNA. He was a talented dual underage player but his early ambitions were stunted more through his size than talent or commitment.

"Growing up, I just felt I was the same at both codes," he says. "I just enjoyed playing both but I never thought I would make it at either code with the county.

"I remember being at the 2004 Munster hurling final and looking at the size of the players. I never thought I would be big enough to play inter-county."

Collins, who stands at just 5'7" now, accepted as a young player that he would have to work harder to compensate for any deficit in physique. He finally made a Clare hurling squad at U-16 level.

When Paul Kinnerk joined Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor's minor management team in 2010, Collins fully committed himself to Kinnerk's conditioning programme.

"I just tried to get stronger so I wouldn't be pushed off the ball," he says.

Collins flourished under that regime. His leadership qualities were really evident at minor level.

He grew in to the spiritual leader of that group when they progressed to U-21 level.

Yet Collins still wasn't deemed destined for the same path mapped out for some of his underage team-mates at senior level.

At the outset of last year, Collins was on the Clare senior football panel.

After playing a McGrath Cup game against UL, he contracted a virus and missed two weeks of training. By the time he returned, he was struggling with his energy and form. He couldn't break in to the football team.

In that vacuum, he heard that the senior hurlers were interested.

"When someone said it to me that the hurlers were looking at me, I thought they were joking," he says.

"I said, 'Ah no, that can't be right'. I sort of laughed it off. A couple of days later, I got the phone call and was asked to meet the hurling management.

"If I had been going well with the footballers, I probably would have stayed with them because I had made them a commitment.

"I spoke to the football management and told them that I didn't feel I had much to offer at that moment and that I wanted to give the hurling a go. They had no problem with the decision."

Collins grasped the opportunity with both hands. He hadn't even played a league game when he was handed his championship debut against Waterford in June 2012.

"To start that game was a bit of a shock for me," he says.

"I think it was a shock for everyone on the panel."

Collins was poor on the day and he didn't feature in Clare's subsequent championship games against Dublin and Limerick.

He started four of Clare's six games in this year's league but he failed to finish any of them.

"Everyone was saying to me, without being rude, 'I don't know why Fitzy (Davy Fitzgerald) is playing you'," says Collins.

The biggest criticism levelled at him was that he wasn't scoring enough. In the five senior matches he had played prior to this year's championship, he had scored just three points.

As an underage player, Collins was always regarded as more of a playmaker and workhorse than a finisher, but he needed to add digits beside his name to justify his inclusion at senior. It was pointed out to him by management.

FORTUNATE

"It's not that I got exceptionally good this year," says Collins. "I just kept working hard and things fell for me. I did do a bit of work on my shooting and I was fortunate that a lot of my shots went over.

"If some of those shots had gone wide, I could have been sitting on the bench again. There is a very fine line between having a great year and a bad year."

Collins didn't start Clare's opening championship match against Waterford but he finally exploded like a fireball in the Munster semi-final against Cork, when he was the most productive player on the field.

From 13 plays, he scored five points from play, set up another point and won two frees.

Collins' season soared afterwards. His tackling and turnover rate was the best in the squad. He was asked to perform a different roving role in every match but his shooting and accuracy added a whole new dimension to his play; he ended the summer with 0-18 from play.

His consistency was outstanding. After scoring two points, setting up another point and being fouled for an astonishing six frees in the drawn All-Ireland final, Cork chained their best man-marker, Brian Murphy, to Collins for the replay.

Setting up two points and forcing a turnover which led to a converted free was the limit of his contribution and he was taken off with 11 minutes remaining. One minute later, a Seamus Harnedy goal brought the teams level.

"I had my head in my hands at that stage," says Collins. "Things hadn't gone well for me and I just thought it could be an awfully disappointing end to the year if I had been taken off and we lost.

"When Conor (McGrath) got our fourth goal soon afterwards, I knew the game wasn't over but it just put me at ease. That goal is probably my best memory of the year."

The season has just kept on giving ever since. As well as winning his second All-Ireland U-21 medal and his first All Star, Collins was shortlisted for Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year.

A remarkable odyssey has continued through Cratloe's epic footballing journey.

En route to their county title, they beat all the big footballing powerhouses -- Kilmurry-Ibrickane, Cooraclare, Kilrush, Eire Og and Doonbeg.

With eight Clare senior hurlers on their panel, a Munster final against Dr Crokes doesn't present the same fear it might for another rookie team.

"We haven't played on many big football days but a lot of us have great experience from the year," says Collins.

"You have to really respect Crokes and it is going to be very tough. But we will have a right go at it anyway."

There are always challenges to meet, questions that Collins' dual talents will always ask of him.

With his father having taken over as Clare senior football manager, the debate is raging in the county as to whether Collins will try to play both codes next season.

He doesn't say what he might do because he can't. He hasn't thought about next year. Dr Crokes is his only focus for now.

When Sunday is over, his final year exams in environmental science in UL will loom in to view. His first exam begins next Saturday. The previous night, the Clare hurlers are being presented with their All-Ireland medals.

Next goal. Next target. Next challenge. Bring it on.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport