Worldly Cummins has parish pride

FRANK CUMMINS is generally recognised as being one of the greatest hurlers of all time, certainly one of the greatest midfielders.

Between 1968 and his retirement from inter-county fare in 1984 he won eight All-Ireland senior medals with Kilkenny.

On the club scene he also enjoyed remarkable success, and as an exile in Cork played a pivotal part in a brilliant Blackrock team that won six county titles, five Munsters, and three All-Ireland club titles.

And yet, difficult as it is to believe, had things taken a different turn Frank Cummins may not have ended up as the most decorated hurler even in his own family.

Tomorrow in Croke Park, Aidan Cummins will line out at full-back for Ballyhale Shamrocks, the team his uncle Frank would have played for had he remained in his native Knocktopher.

Already Aidan has four Kilkenny senior titles in the bag, three Leinsters and one All-Ireland club, while on the inter-county scene, he has three Celtic Crosses, from 2000, 2002 and 2003.

Still only 30, still hurling well, anchoring one of the best defences in club hurling, and with the kind of powerful physique that obviously runs in the family, there is no obvious reason why Aidan hasn’t also been an integral part of the Kilkenny panel that is now going for five-in-a-row All-Ireland titles, which would give him eight medals, equal with his illustrious uncle. No obvious reason, but then you talk to Aidan, and all becomes clear.

First, there was the way in which he left the Kilkenny panel, and why.

"I left in October 2003," he explained. "I decided to go off travelling for a year with my girlfriend, Pauline. Off we went and had a good time, and that was the end of Kilkenny."

Regrets? You could say that. "Sure isn’t life full of regrets? I had three All-Ireland medals; the first year I came on in the Leinster semi-final and final, the second year I tore ligaments in my ankle, the last year I started only one championship match (Leinster semi-final win over Dublin). Looking back at it I was sick of sitting on the bench, didn’t fancy it for another All-Ireland – it didn’t appeal to me. That was probably my own fault too, I should have made more of an effort, extra training and that. But you have to look on the other side, you have to live a bit – life doesn’t revolve around hurling. It opens up doors and possibilities, but we travelled and enjoyed ourselves. We went to Singapore, Australia for most of it, New Zealand for two weeks in a camper van, Bali for two weeks, Fiji for a week at Christmas; did a bit of skiing, the whole works. I’d recommend it to anyone, it broadens your horizons."

But he paid a big price for his travels and hasn’t been asked back onto the county panel since his return. The club has offered compensation, however, a lot of compensation, and even as Kilkenny have won their four-in-a-row, Ballyhale Shamrocks have matched that feat year on year, and have now won four-in-a-row themselves, a considerable feat in Ireland’s premier hurling county.

"Yeah; the first year I came back from my travels I was captain, we got to the county final but we were beaten – that was a sickener. Since then we’ve been lucky and got a great run together and have been champions every year."

Champions in Kilkenny yes; on the national stage, however, they are currently playing second fiddle to mighty Portumna, club champions for the last two seasons, going for an unprecedented three-in-a-row. Last year, at semi-final stage, Portumna destroyed Ballyhale, destroyed the defence particularly, blasted five goals in a very one-sided win. This year, in a defensive shuffle, Aidan has swapped places with team captain Eamonn Walsh and has gone from centre-back to full. So, how is he going to manage Joe Canning, destroyer of so many full-backs already, though still only 21? "

There haven’t been too many have managed him yet, have there?" he asks. No, but John Lee in the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final final this year didn’t do too badly, nor did James McInerney of Clare nor Eoin Cadogan of Cork last year, so it’s not as though Joe is entirely invincible, is it?

"Ah sure they’re all better than me!" he laughs. "I’m past it now." Past it? Uncle Frank was voted hurler-of-the-year in 1983, at the age of 36, which puts Aidan still in his prime. He’ll do a job tomorrow, count on it.