'There's a sense of madness to this game'
David Collins has used every ounce of his energy to resume pursuit of ultimate glory with Galway, writes Damian Lawlor
DAVID COLLINS has endured more disappointments in hurling than he'd care to remember, but his memories are tinged with good humour all the same.
"I think I've learned you have to be crazy in this game to win," he says. "Like, look at Kilkenny – they hate losing. And for us to win another Leinster final we have to get manic in terms of aggression; the hooks, blocks, tackles, and get in the opposition's faces. Tipperary had to do it to beat Kilkenny and win that All-Ireland in 2010 and that is now the peak that every team needs to get to win. I really think everyone is crazy in this game now, to be honest with you. There is a sense of madness in it, but it is great. If you don't have that, you are going nowhere."
He's sipped from the well of victory at under 21 level, won a young hurler of the year and an All Star award, and was part of the Galway side that shocked Kilkenny in last year's Leinster final, but along the way Collins has played in every defensive position for the side and sometimes seen his form suffer from the constant movement. He's also seen his career dangle by a thread after a chronic injury and is part of an enigmatic team that has veered from unexpected hammerings to almost beating the greatest team of all time in last year's All-Ireland final.
All things considered, though, his journey over this past decade has made him what he is today; a motivated, street-wise, defensive lynchpin; an All Star with only one goal left in his wish list – to claim a Celtic Cross.
Just six years ago it looked like the final curtain had fallen on his brief centre-stage calling. He ripped his ankle so badly in the 2007 inter-provincial final that he was forced out of the game for two years. The injury was one of the rarest freaks you'll find in sport. He tried to turn quickly while the studs of his boots remained planted in the turf.
You could hear a penny drop – and not because there were only a couple of hundred people at Croke Park, but because everyone knew it was serious. The ankle was completely dislocated, his ligaments were torn, and his foot bolted 180 degrees.
That night, as he lay on his hospital bed, he was given the stark directive that he would never hurl again. The news was relayed to him bluntly, like a bold print message on a white billboard.
Collins, though, is his own man. He reckoned his mind and body would find its own diagnosis when it was ready. The way he saw it, he could either mourn a short-lived career or raise a glass to the prospect of one day playing for Galway again. He chose the latter.
"'When can I get back hurling again? That was my first question to the doctors," he recalls.
He sips his water and continues on.
"The consultant told me it was over. But I would be a positive thinker and I nearly wanted to prove him wrong there and then. So, I got to the stage where I was back running straight lines and once I could run straight lines, I was saying, 'this is cool, I'll be fine'."
Such mental steel cannot be purchased easily and Collins had to use every point on his loyalty card to get to that level. Time away from the game nearly melted his head and so he used the break to quickly develop into an international-class triathlete, competing in three triathlons to date.
"I travelled to Miami to do one and I managed 1hr 11mins in – a sprint triathlon consisting of 750m swim, 40km cycle and 10km race. Were it not for the hurling I would definitely have pursued the cycling more so than the triathlon," he adds. "The cycling is mighty – it is a great job for anyone because it has no impact on the legs. It is an individual sport but is tough at the top and you won't get to the top unless you are really committed to it."
Such prowess has rendered the ankle injury a mere horrible memory. Scars do remain, however, both physically and sometimes mentally. For a while following his return he feared doing the ankle again – or the other one. So he decided he would take no more chances.
His focus now filters right down to preventative strapping; he arrives at training before everyone else to follow the routine. "I strap my ankles before training, it's a 15 to 20-minute job. The rest of the boys are looking at you, kind of saying, 'what are you doing that for?'.
"But it's better to strap everything up in 15 minutes, rather than face six months of rehab. God, the likes of Colm O'Neill and these cruciate ligament injuries, I don't know how lads keep coming back. The mental toughness those guys have ... would I have the mental toughness to come back after another ankle injury? I don't think so. Still, everyone who's played inter-county has a story to tell. They've either been out for a long time or had an injustice done to them. I've learned so much myself," he muses.
He admits that everything came too easy at the start.
"Yeah, I think in 2005, when I got the Young Hurler of the Year, I was a cocky, self-confident player. Everything just went for me and everything flowed. When you are younger you were guaranteed to go to Supermacs after training, have a fry or something.
"Now diet is everything – that's the major change – the intelligence behind the game. The recovery, the rehab, the diet, the plans."
When Collins first cut his teeth at this level, he thought the bar couldn't go any higher in terms of training, but he was wrong.
"Way wrong. You'd be an hour and a half after training now before you'd even get to leave," Collins reckons. "And you'd have to eat three hours beforehand and then take the right stuff afterwards.
"In 2005 I knew nothing about that stuff. I knew nothing about the importance of protein or conditioning but now everything is about mobilisation and core conditioning – every team must have an excellent sports science staff.
"So, I have to work a lot harder but I'm using my experience. I'm not running around like a headless chicken. I'm saving myself and I'm a lot more aware of what's going on, including the outside politics of the game and everything that goes on around and outside it. That plays a lot on young lads' minds – some guys can't handle the hype and the pressure."
To maintain those standards, Collins lives like a monk, trains like a professional athlete, and applies the same focus to his gear and equipment as a gourmet chef putting the final touches on a delicacy, even if he sometimes admits it all gets too serious. He jokes that his girlfriend, Sarah, who lives with him in Galway City, often wonders if she thinks she is going out with a hermit.
"It's a boring lifestyle, any hurler will tell you that. My girlfriend feels like killing me at times, I'd say. She'd be wondering what a certain bar was like and wondering why she hadn't been there yet, having lived in Galway for two years!
"Hurling is there to be enjoyed. It's not a professional game and it never will be, but the commitment is a lot on people who have careers as it's very time-consuming," he says. "You'd be on the go seven days a week now and doing something every day. On recovery days you'd be on a couch thinking you should be doing something else.
"And so it's hard to keep an interest in anything outside of training. When county is off, the club is on. But all hurlers at the top level are fanatical – they have to be – if they are seen out drinking it's a negative straight away and the whole place is talking."
They face Dublin today with Anthony Daly's men coming in on a high after beating Kilkenny last weekend. A fresher Galway, however, will be chastened by an average display against Laois, a game which Collins missed through injury.
There have been all sorts of mad theories about them not peaking too soon this season, or not showing their full hand until the All-Ireland series, but Collins' trophy cabinet isn't exactly bulging at the seams. He wants another title to add to the collection.
For too long he was part of a team that squandered prosperous leads, finished games erratically, yielding all too readily when the winning tape beckoned, like the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final against Tipp, for instance. He's sick of summers that were bereft of joy, sick of the notion of a season ever petering out again.
"I got great satisfaction out of winning a provincial title last year because I was one of those who wanted the move to Leinster. We had a hard struggle getting here but it's been of benefit because we get games against the likes of Offaly and Wexford early in the summer whereas we were getting nothing in the last 10 years, only to play against a loser of a provincial first round 13 weeks into the summer.
"So it was a personal goal to win Leinster. But the long-term goal is to win the All-Ireland."
That's always been the case. As his career has evolved, however, it now looks to be within definite touching distance. This afternoon could be another significant milestone for Collins in what has been a pretty compelling ride so far.