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Picture: Brian Gavin, Press 22

Having been rejected once for being too small, Clare’s Podge Collins made one vow — if he wasn’t going to catch ball above lads’ heads, he wasn’t going to get pushed off it either. The season he doesn’t want to end takes another twist today with Cratloe in a Clare football final.

Podge Collins has few vices in life. He’s into his fourth year in college in Limerick and has still yet to go out on a Tuesday night there. Instead he’s either training or resting. He’s hugely conscious of whatever he eats or drinks. His one guilty pleasure every week is a card game in Cratloe with five or six friends, a game of 110. Usually on a Friday night, when he wants to relax and rest up before a game at the weekend. And he’s also partial to a game of FIFA 2013 with the brothers, or the 2014 version if they happen to be in Cathal McInerney’s house. If he could, he’d always be one team, because of one player. Barcelona, Lionel Messi.

“He’d definitely be my favourite player,” says Collins over a glass of water and a small, prepared lunch between lectures in UL.

“Just the way he controls the ball and controls his temperament. He’ll dribble past a lad who’ll be kicking his ankles and he’ll still stay on his feet and try to get the goal until the whistle blows.

“I’ll be keeping videos of him anyway for years to come. He’s phenomenal. I don’t think there’ll be another player like him in any sport.”

Padraic Collins is right in a lot of ways. There probably won’t be anything like Messi again in any sport. But then there are a few like him in other ways too. Like Collins himself.

This year he won an All Star, an All-Ireland senior medal and All-Ireland U21 medal. He was on the shortlist of three for Player of the Year. He was probably the most exciting player to watch in this year’s championship with his touch and skill and ability to create and conjure up scores. The reverse handpass against Galway. The solo-swing-and-scooped point under the Cusack Stand in the drawn All-Ireland final when three Cork players seemed to have him surrounded, probably the most audacious and brilliant individual point in Croke Park since DJ Carey bamboozled Ollie Baker in 2002.

He’s been the nearest thing hurling has seen to a Messi, just when we thought we’d never see the small man flourish in hurling again.

Collins has always being partial to the smaller player. He follows NBA basketball and namechecks 5’9 point guard Nate Robinson in the same breath as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Seán Cavanagh along with Michael Murphy is now his favourite footballer but around the time he first started following the games the man he looked up to was Peter Canavan. In hurling he’s long admired Henry Shefflin and looked up to Seán McMahon and his future mentor Brian Lohan but he took particularly delight in watching Jamesie O’Connor and Joe Deane. Yet watching that Cork team that Deane adorned could be a dispiriting experience too.

He was 12 when he attended the legendary 2004 Munster final in Thurles. His seat was right on the 40.

In front of him was the great Cork halfback line of Gardiner, Curran and Ó hAilpín. Lining up in direct opposition to them for Waterford were Dan Shanahan, Seamus Prendergast and Eoin Kelly.

Not just men but giants. Not one of them seemed smaller than 6’3. At the time he was about 4’3. He knew he’d struggle to be a lot bigger than 5ft3, 5’6 tops.

“I remember thinking that there’s no place at that level in this sport for me anyway,” he says. “I said to mam I didn’t think I’d ever make it. I didn’t think I’d ever play for Clare.”

It was compounded when he was U14. His skill meant he was impossible for the county selectors to ignore and make the provisional Tony Forristal expanded panel, but his size was impossible for them to ignore as well. He didn’t make the final cut. That cut remains the deepest.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember everything about that day. We’d a challenge game in Tipperary, I’d come on with just a few minutes to go, and before we headed back on the bus seven or eight of us were kept behind in the dressing room to say we were being let go. I’ll never forget it, having to get back on the bus with the lads who had made it, and then getting off the bus in Cratloe that day.”

If anything though, it drove him. He’d accepted he was never going to be six foot. He’d just have to work harder to compensate for that. In the legendary La Masia academy that produced Messi and a conveyer belt of other Barcelona prodigies, they reckon that a good small ’un is better than a good big ’un because he’ll work harder. In Clare and Cratloe they now seem to have a similar outlook, with Collins personifying it. He might have been smaller than anyone else but he could still outwork everyone else.

In transition year in school he never left the hurley either out of his hand or at least out of sight. He had always brought it around the place but that year it was ridiculous altogether. He and a few friends would leave it at the top of the classroom during classes. Between classes they’d pick them up again and hurl along with a tennis ball in the corridor before sitting down for the next class. Then at lunchtime they’d produce them again. And after school. They’d even go to school early so they could puck around there.

He didn’t make the Clare U15 panel but he made the U16s and then the minors the year after. In 2010 Paul Kinnerk joined the management team along with Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney. Collins fully committed himself to Kinnerk’s conditioning programme. “I just tried to get a bit bigger. I knew I wasn’t going to be catching ball above lads’ heads so I didn’t want to get pushed off it.”

Their drills and coaching brought him on too. They never once mentioned his size, just how he could be more competitive and effective under the high ball. He could try bringing the ball down with the hurley; there were ways to make sure if he didn’t catch the ball, that he could make sure his man didn’t catch it either. “They never brought up my size. It wasn’t a problem at all.”

They would have a fantastic if ultimately frustrating season together in 2010, winning only Clare’s third-ever Munster minor title before marginally losing an All Ireland final which they had dominated for long periods.

Again that only fuelled rather than deflated them. These past two years they’ve won the All Ireland U21 title.

And this year under Kinnerk as team coach, Collins and a core group of that 2010 minor team ended up with their hands on Liam McCarthy.

He knows they got some breaks along the way as much as they earned a lot of those breaks. “We were nearly relegated. Cork beat us by seven points in the Munster championship. If there was no backdoor this story doesn’t happen. In the qualifiers were so focused and prepared for Laois because they’d given Galway such a scare. And against Wexford if Jack Guiney had got that goal when we were two points up, our year is over. The thin margin between winning and losing is unbelievable.”

He didn’t make it to Davy Fitzgerald’s house for that famous MiWadi and Mikado get-together on the Monday night after the Cork game; Collins was working down in Cork as it happens.

But he was there on the Tuesday night for training. Perhaps the most intense session they’d had that year. Certainly far more intense than had been the norm that year.

“If you were at our sessions two weeks before the Cork game and then two days or two weeks after it you’d have seen a completely different intensity. Much sharper, much more focused. Before or after training you could have all the craic you’d want but during training there was no messing.”

They also stepped up their commitment to eating and resting properly and working on their hurling outside training. Collins was already diligent on that front. He was on placement down in Cork for the first eight months of this year, working and living out in Wilton, and would regularly pop over to the Rochestown College ball alley in the evenings he wasn’t shooting back to Clare. He never encountered Donal Óg Cusack, Eoin Cadogan or the neighbouring Justin McCarthy in his time up there, just primarily handball players.

There he would face a few workmates, and one occasion, Laois’s Willie Hyland, a good friend of his elder brother and county panellist Seán. Hyland beat him well, five games to one, but the exercise was very useful to Collins, reinforcing his old coach Joe McGrath’s message of always keeping your eye on that ball.

Collins is assiduous in monitoring what he eats and drinks. Growing up he got known as ‘Podge’ rather than ‘Paudie’ for being a tad pudgy, but he’s long been a model of clean living. When we meet, he brings along his own small meal in a plastic container. Sweet potato, a bit of brown pasta, chicken and peppers. Just something he or the mum cooked earlier.

“The one thing I’ve learned is that when you keep to a good diet, you’ve a lot more energy, you definitely feel better. I found it a lot easier this year to get out of bed.”

He’s been one of the spiritual leaders of the successful minor and U21 Clare teams he played for and never was that leadership more apparent than in the lead up to the 2010 All-Ireland minor final. The Tuesday before the final 25 members of the panel had the St Flannan’s graduation ball on. Collins, along with Paul Flanagan, approached management and together came up with the solution: pick up their dates at eight, drink water all night and be home for 12.30.

In case you think he’s one of those boring, humourless, monastic new breed of hurlers, you’d be wrong. He might be monastic but hardly boring or humourless. He has one of those grins that lights up a room and that grin is very frequent whenever he’s in the same room as his Clare team-mates.

He keeps using the word ‘Relaxed’ when describing Clare’s mindset for both All-Ireland finals and a lot of that has to do with the vibe of the group. On the train up from Limerick he was at the same table as Aaron Cunningham, Cathal McInerney and Shane O’Donnell, “just sitting with my buddies, having the banter”.

Not since perhaps the great Tyrone team of the early years of the last decade has there been such a tight-knit wave and core group of young players breaking onto a senior team. Thankfully, tragedy hasn’t informed their bonding, but that bond is undoubtedly there. “There’s no one you wouldn’t get along with. That has really helped.”

He’s been particularly unaffected by all the hype that has gone with the win. It’s his nature and it’s also the nature of his life. It was right back into it with the club and even when the hurlers were knocked out there was still the footballers. He loves the big ball too. It’s his dad’s game, a native of Kilmihil in west Clare, and Colm Collins is so passionate and knowledgeable about it he’s now the new manager of the senior county team. He’s also the manager of the Cratloe senior team, who are in today’s county final. Three of his sons will be playing for him against Doonbeg, as will all the other lads on the Clare senior hurling team, like locals Conor Ryan and Conor McGrath as well as Fergal Lynch and Brendan Bugler. All going well, they’ll be playing today as well in the Munster club championship. It would be a hectic schedule but in a way in Cratloe they know nothing else.

At times being a contending dual club has hurt them and at times it really helps them. When they first won the county senior hurling title with a 17-year-old Podge coming off the bench, they’d been playing a lot of football too, getting out of their group. When you’re playing football one week, it means you have a real hunger for the hurling the following one; then vice-versa after the following weekend. For the past month it has been all football but after the hurling year he’s had and also the club footballer’s near misses against Kilmurry-Ibrickane in quarter-finals and semi-finals in recent years, it’s been no harm either.

Again the foundation of their success, he attributes to “hard work”. What makes his dad such a good manager? How he emphasises – and rewards – hard work. That’s maybe where his mentality as a hurler comes from; he brings a footballer’s intensity to the game, with his desire to tackle and turn his man over, playing much bigger than his size.

He’s played football for the county before, in all the grades – minor, U21, and for the first few months of 2012, with the seniors. He’s a terrifically crafty footballer, with deft touches, vision and skill to burn. Then he came down with a virus, dropped off the panel before he was picked up by Davy Fitzgerald on the eve of that 2012 championship. Does he aspire to play for both Davy and dad for both county teams next year? He won’t say, because he can’t say. He hasn’t really thought about it because all he’s been thinking about is trying to win this first county senior football title for Cratloe.

“I suppose once the All-Ireland was over, it was all about the club. You’re thinking ‘Okay, this is great what we’ve done but the club has put eight months into this year.’ You don’t want to waste what they’ve put in and what you’ve put in. You want to stay in optimal condition. I’m thankful that the club are on this run because I actually don’t know how I’d fill the week without it. A Tuesday or Thursday without training; I’d wonder what to do with that night!”

It’s his fourth and final year studying environmental science in UL. He enjoys the course but knows it’ll be harder this year than his year on co-op which so suited his hurling schedule. But he’ll make sure to fit in and prioritise the hurling for 2014 still.

“If you take it handy and sit on a bar stool for a few months another group of players will come in just as easily and take your place. I definitely find that with our panel there are so many players who can play your position, you have to stay 100% focused to hold onto it. Tots O’Connell played as well as any of the seniors with the 21s this year – if not better. There’s Davy O’Halloran, Cathal McInerney; they’re just where I was at the start of last year. I know from training how good they are. Shane O’Donnell and Darach Honan are fighting for the same position.”

He was never big so he’s not going to get big-headed now. His work rate and skill level though, gigantic.


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