The remarkable rise of Kerry camogie, fuelled by a one-club county team*

*bar one player – Cillard’s Bríd Horan. Clanmaurice star Laura Collins explains through her own journey to a second consecutive All-Ireland final.

Kerry star Laura Collins.
Kerry star Laura Collins.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WHERE DOES ONE start with Kerry camogie star Laura Collins?

The fact that hurling is confined to North Kerry? The fact that everyone on her Kingdom camogie side is from one club bar one player? The fact that they’re contesting a second consecutive All-Ireland final after reaching the top table for the first time ever last year?

Their rise has been pretty remarkable really.

Then, what about last year’s decider where Collins twisted her ankle and tore all the ligaments 10 minutes in, but played on? Or perhaps her colourful life off the pitch where she owns an equestrian centre back home after many twists and turns on these shores and abroad through the years?

There was quite a bit to go through.

The first thing that strikes you about 28-year-old Collins, however, is her accent. It’s not exactly a strong Kerry one.

“Supposedly I have a couple of different accents going, alright,” she laughs. “No, I’m Kerry through and through. North Kerry, literally the sticks in Kilmoyley. You can’t get much more Kerry. If you talked to my Dad, you wouldn’t understand him!”

College in Limerick, a period of studying Spain and a stint working and living in Navan are all credited for the neutrality, but it was in the Kingdom where the Clanmaurice player’s camogie journey began.

“I played underage with the boys up until 12 and then I was kicked out because I was a girl,” she grins. “I always had the horses, and I was dragged along to a football game now and then if they were stuck but I wasn’t really into it and then I had nothing until I was 18 or 19.”

With camogie not starting up fully in the county until the turn of the decade in 2010 or 2011, Collins played a small bit in college in University of Limerick with the intermediate team but decided against Ashbourne Cup level.

“I was afraid to go into them because I had no hurling compared to them,” she says, echoing the words of her hugely talented clubmate Patrice Diggins. 

“Then they cut the intermediate team because they hadn’t funding and I was really starting to enjoy it… but the club had started by then and then the county team and it’s just gone from strength to strength since.”

laura-collins-celebrates-with-aoife-fitzgerald-at-the-full-time-whistle Collins after the semi-final win over Clare last month. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

A late bloomer, like many others, but from small acorns, mighty oaks will grow.

And that’s exactly what happened in Kerry. There’s still just one senior club, Clanmaurice, but with six underage clubs fully established and thriving, the future looks bright. And with a tight Sister Act in place in the county-set up, they’ve lifted Division 3 and 4 titles, and reached inter-county and club All-Ireland junior finals over the past few years.

“It’s amazing,” she smiles. “We thank every day that someone actually went and set up up a club team and then a county team in Kerry because we had no camogie.

“The hurling is so big in North Kerry. There’s seven hurling clubs and it’s live or die, like. For there to be no camogie was bit mad so it’s great it’s starting to build.”

18-year-old Bríd Horan — who actually works with Collins at the equestrian centre, her ‘minion’ for the summer, she laughs — is the one exception to the one-club-bar-one player county team, because she’s playing with underage side Cillard.

“It’s absolutely mental,” Collins nods. “It’s good in one sense because we’re so close but the other thing is we don’t bring the intensity to training. We’re like ‘Are you okay, sorry, sorry!’ We’re so nice to each other. 

“Ian [Brick, manager] had to say at the start of the year, ‘Just. Stop. Saying. Sorry!’ We still do it now and then.

“We don’t have a huge panel. We went down to Waterford who had nearly 36 players and we’d a lot of injuries that week and landed with 18. That was daunting. But the girls are very dedicated and Ian says the commitment is like he’s never seen before.”

Collins Equestrian next, how did that come about? 

She studied Maths and Spanish in UL with the intentions of being a teacher, but things soon took a turn as she went to Navan for a year to work on a yard and do her equestrian exams.

“My mother wishes I went back and did teaching,” she jokes. But Collins is happy out, and that’s all that matters. Her enthusiasm shines through as she speaks of the 20 horses they have, the classes and the camps they run, the beach trekking and all that goes along with it.

laura-collins Facing Dublin in last year's final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s tough going, long hours but I love every minute of it,” she continues, and then a giggle. “There’s a lot of work to it and long hours so there’s a couple of days you’re landing to training a bit late and see Ian’s face wondering what held you up.

“We’re constantly outdoors. We’d be up and down the beach three times a day in the summer and then out to training. I had a step counter on the last day and had clocked up 52,000 steps — that was before training!”

It all goes hand-in-hand with her vicious work-rate on the pitch so, and that perhaps is best epitomised through her warrior-like performance in last September’s All-Ireland Premier Junior final defeat to Dublin.

For the first 10 minutes she was centre-half forward and then the ankle injury happened. She insisted on being taped up and pushed into full-forward, but soon found herself out around the middle.

“I was well taped at half-time and got through the game but it was a tough one,” she says.

“We didn’t deserve it on the day, didn’t perform and they were very good. Playing Division 2 really stood to them last year, you could see they were at a different level and we didn’t turn up. I think we were a bit in awe of it all.

“It was absolutely amazing experience, overall. The first time for most of us to get on the pitch [at Croke Park]. That roar that erupted coming out under the tunnel, I think it shook a lot of us on the day, we weren’t expecting that. You’d expect friends and family there, but not that kind of crowd.

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“But we’re hoping it will stand to us this year. We’re ready for it. Making the final last year, all you want to do is come back.”

And back, they are with Limerick in the way of Kerry finally getting their hands on the Kay Mills Cup on Sunday [throw-in 12pm].

Collins says that plenty of people are putting pressure on the side after the Sky Blues lost in 2017 and won last year, but doesn’t exactly buy into that Omen.

“I think a couple of teams have done that, lost one year and won it the following year but the opponents are tough,” she stresses.

grace-lee-and-laura-collins With Limerick captain Grace Lee. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Our game against Limerick in the championship was very close [Kerry were narrow winners] and could have gone either way so it’s going to come down to whoever wants it more on the day. We’re hoping that last year’s loss will give us that extra drive.”

They’re no strangers to one another anyway, locking horns on many occasions through the year with Clanmaurice also making the short trip Shannonside to play in the Limerick club championship a few years back.

An end came to that however, after a debacle surrounding who should represent Limerick in Munster after Collin’s side won one year. Now, Clanmaurice — who train as a county team all year around with club players joining the fold when all finishes up there — have no club competition in Kerry, but that’s a story for another day.

For now, it’s all systems go for Sunday.

The 25,000 attendance target is the closing point of conversation and how massive breaking that would be, along with the fact that all three games will be broadcast live on RTÉ.

And that comes with a nod to someone very special.

“My Aunty is too sick to come up to watch it but she’ll see it on TV and is so excited,” Collins beams. “She was the first to tell me it was on RTÉ.

“We thought it was just on the Player so things like that make such a difference.”

That, they do. And Collins is hoping that she, herself, can make a difference come Sunday at HQ.

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Emma Duffy

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