Collins content to be contributing what he can to Clare’s cause
Now 27, the Banner forward has a mature perspective on the game and his place in it
Clare’s Podge Collins at Centra’s launch of the GAA All Ireland Hurling Championship. “I basically am playing as a fan now. That’s the best way to enjoy it.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Podge Collins bounces into the lobby of the Croke Park Hotel, swapping his hurley to his left hand so he can shake yours with his right. We said we’d meet around half-eight in the evening and though he’s a few minutes behind, you couldn’t hold it against him. He has had something far better to be at.
“I was just in next door, having a few pucks,” he smiles.
“What, in on the pitch?”
“Ah no, in on the astroturf inside. They don’t mind.”
If course they don’t. He’s Podge Collins and he has a hurley in his hand and a gearbag over his shoulder. How are they going to mind?
He is 27 now, probably a shade over halfway in his inter-county career. You talk to some players and the years can tend to gradually melt into each other, the odd one a stand-out, the rest an amorphous blur. Not Collins. This is his eighth season and every one of them has brought something different.
In 2012, he was called into the Clare panel as a 20-year-old. He had the hurling but physically he wasn’t there yet. All the same, he managed to play his way into the starting team for Waterford in the championship.
“I was taken off at half-time, just completely bullied. That year, I ended up playing two more games, against Dublin and Limerick. Then 2013 went the way it went.”
The way it went ended with him as an All-Ireland winner, an All Star and nominated for both Young Hurler of the Year and Hurler of the Year, albeit he lost both to Tony Kelly come the night.
You looked through the list of Clare’s break-out stars from that year and along with Kelly and full-back David McInerney, Collins seemed like a made man. The blithe predictions for more Clare All-Irelands before the end of the decade all had Podge Collins as a keystone.
Reality made fools of us all. Clare’s reign as All-Ireland champions ended the following year against Wexford, with Collins inconsolable in the dug-out after being red carded for grabbing David Redmond’s helmet. The following year, he played for the Clare footballers with his father as manager and along the way did his cruciate.
When he got back for 2016, he gave it a go again as a dual player and won a league title in both codes. By 2017, he had drifted to the outer reaches of the Clare panel – on the team here, off it there, nobody’s idea of a keystone to anything.
Last year promised little but delivered plenty – he started it rooted to the bench against Cork, came off it to score the equaliser in a frantic endgame against Tipp, before starting every game from there to the All-Ireland semi-final replay. “A lot has happened in a short period of time,” he smiles.
Along the way, he grew to understand it all a bit better. He is a Clare hurler but that’s not all he is. It’s the part of him that hits the most pleasure points and he’ll give it everything he has for as long as he has it. But it doesn’t consume him. Not any more.
“Any time I see articles with lads giving out about amateur status or giving out that it’s a second job, I nearly want to grab them and go, ‘This is what you wanted all your life. You knew what it was. What’s your problem?’
“I knew at a young age what I wanted to get into. When you’re young, you dream about it. You’re a fan of Clare, you go to matches all your life. Then you get to play and I never thought I’d be good enough to play for Clare or that I’d make it. But when you do, the fan side of it goes away and it becomes all-consuming. Winning becomes the only thing you care about and it takes over your life.
“But now, I’ve gone full circle. I’m at the stage now where I’m nearly a fan again. You get that bit older, you enjoy it more, you understand better what it is. I think it was probably really only last year that I came around to that way of thinking.”
Collins tortured himself for long enough. Oddly enough, it was the small things that leeched themselves to him. Results stuck in his craw, the ups and downs of his own displays and minutes jabbed at him. But when it came to something bigger, like the cruciate injury in 2015 that kept him out for nine months, he was able to process it far easier.
“I remember when it happened, the first words that were said to me was that it was a disruption of the knee ligament. And I was thinking, ‘sure disruption doesn’t sound too bad’. Disruption is a house party, it’s only a small thing that gets sorted out fairly easily. But no, the ACL was gone.
“I remember coming back in the car from hearing that it was the ACL and being a small bit disappointed. But I think I got over it quickly enough. My attitude really was, ‘You’re playing top level sport, this is always a possibility.’ Get over it, get on with it, get back. Work on what you can when you’re out and come back stronger than ever.
“I think the fact that you have a job and you have a life makes it easier in a way. Being an amateur athlete with a cruciate, I think the time goes a bit quicker. I’d imagine if you’re a professional soccer player or rugby player or whatever, it’s a far more mundane journey back. You’d get sick of the rehab, of that just being the only thing you’re doing that day.
“But for me, it was a case of, ‘Right, I’m off to work, I’ll have time this evening to go to the gym and do my rehab.’ It’s a busy time, it goes very quickly.”
Tortured doesn’t suit him. He’s not the type. By day, he’s on the road around the midlands, sorting out asset finance, mainly for farmers sourcing new machinery. He and the car eat up the miles, happily milling through podcasts and audiobooks as he goes. He’ll listen to anything sporty but he’s big into Irish history as well. In the background, he’s tipping away at studying nutrition, his big passion outside hurling.
Over the winter, he went to Boston to visit Shane O’Donnell at Harvard.
“Yeah, it was real Good Will Hunting stuff,” he says. “I was the Ben Affleck of the situation, definitely. My boy’s wicked smaaht! He’s studying microbiology and he had a lab full of rats and was treating them like his babies. He was studying IBS and looking at the effect of polyunsaturated fats on them. So it was interesting, something a bit different.”
When O’Donnell came back and scorched the Waterford defence in their Munster Championship opener three weeks ago, Collins laughed at the rave reviews. He expected nothing less.
“I remember one of our coaches saying to me back in March or April that he was a bit worried that Shane would come back in a few weeks and would he take a while to find his feet. I said to him, ‘Trust me, it’s not going to be a problem’. He just has an eye for the ball, his hand-eye co-ordination is immaculate. He came back hungry as well and that’s important too.
‘This is all about getting the win. If I can help from here, I will. If I can hand out water or a hurley, I will’.
“But like, I saw people on Twitter going, ‘This just goes to show that all the pre-season training is nonsense’. What do people think he was doing over there? Shane looked after his body, looked after his diet, his nutrition. He did his bit of hurling, his gym, all that stuff. He didn’t go away and fill himself full of fatty food for six months and just stroll back into it. You’re not dealing with someone like that.”
After putting Waterford away, Clare had a three-week break. Collins put in a decent enough shift in the summer opener, grabbing a point off scraps around John Conlon in the first half and generally making use of himself around the place. His role is to be like a number seven in rugby, getting in and around whatever’s happening, farming possession, linking lines.
He departed proceedings in the 53rd minute against Waterford, replaced by Aron Shanagher. In younger days, he’d have beaten himself up about getting hooked early. Not now. No point.
“Last year, I found myself not making the team. I was a sub against Cork, I came on against Waterford, I came on against Tipp. Sitting in the stand, I remember thinking back to 2014 and 2016 where if I wasn’t playing or if I was taken off or something, I’d be beating myself up and it would be the end of the world.
“That’s not how it was for me last year. I was doing everything in my power to get a game but if I didn’t, I was sitting in the stand and with a full heart thinking, ‘This is all about getting the win. If I can help from here, I will. If I can hand out water or a hurley, I will’.
“So I’ve found it went full circle. That’s what I mean by saying I basically am playing as a fan now. That’s the best way to enjoy it.”