Peter Duggan knocked 67 frees between the posts for Clare in last year’s hurling championship yet ask your average punter to recall an attempt he stood over and plenty would dig up one among the small handful that didn’t make it.
Such is life for the dead-ball specialist. Place kickers in rugby and penalty takers in football suffer the same warped perception. Think Roberto Baggio in the final of USA ‘94, or Jonathan Sexton with that wayward effort that could have clinched victory against the All Blacks in 2013.
Duggan’s success rate, like that of lauded colleagues such as Joe Canning and Patrick Horgan at their best, pushed high into the 80s in terms of percentages in the 2018 championship but such metronomic success tends to obscure the brilliance and simplicity of the technique that makes those figures a reality.
Much easier to remember the effort he had blocked down in the second half of the Munster final against Cork. Or the late attempt that met a similar fate in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway in Thurles. Both stood out all the more for coming in games of such import and decided by slim margins.
You might imagine a winter spent lamenting such moments but Duggan wasn’t of a mind to pay such penance. He showed as much in that provincial against Cork in continuing on regardless despite missing a handful of attempts in that second period.
I have practised enough that I know if I miss I know that it is not because I am not able to do it. I always reset my mind in the same way in that whatever happens, happens and if I miss it I don’t let it bother me, I just reset and hit the free the exact same way I intended to hit the first one.
This isn’t wilful ignorance.
When Duggan did scan back over a summer that ended with a first All-Star award he recognised a pattern among the frees that failed. Most were actually on the easier side of the spectrum and he didn’t need telling that he would need a higher arc on some of those struck closer to goal.
“The style I have would be based on hitting the ball low and hard and the harder I hit it the straighter it is. I have always had that kind of technique.
“In the wet my ball can go anywhere but in dry weather it just goes dead straight.
“So that’s why I have always hit them low and hard,” he added. “You can still afford to hit them low and hard from far out because your trajectory is always going to be a small bit higher than it is for the closer in ones.”
There is an obvious temptation to look at the role of free-taker as an added burden on shoulders already bearing the weight of a county’s ambitions, but Duggan uses the pause in play to recalibrate and the uncontested shot as a means of ‘triggering’ his game in general.
For most the simple act of scoring is the sum of their thoughts.
For Eoin Kelly, a long-time free-taker with Tipperary and currently involved in helping out the dead-ball brigade under Liam Sheedy, there was never much yen for looking beyond the need to lift cleanly and strike cleanly.
What came from that was almost an afterthought, too.
“You would have to block things out because if you’re going to a free and you’re two points up or you’re three points up and next thing you’re saying to yourself, ‘If I score this now and we go four, it’ll make us more comfortable’...” Kelly explained.
Sure, straight away you’re talking about the outcome and the next thing is you’ve hit it and you’ve said, ‘Jaysus, missed that, and I didn’t even…’
It’s all about just getting into a routine of putting it down, getting the lift and the strike.
If those mechanics have been a constant since time immemorial then this most singular of roles has changed in the frequency with which its proponents are required. Duggan and Kelly’s own experiences and numbers bear that out all too clearly.
Duggan’s points from frees last summer worked out at over eight per game played. Kelly’s 32 in Tipp’s 2010 All-Ireland-winning campaign came in at an average of 4.5 per 70 minutes. And to think that Clare won an All-Ireland in 1995 by landing an average of just 2.5 per afternoon.
Duggan’s contribution from frees made it into double figures on three occasions, maxing out at 13. His lowest contribution in that department was five. Kelly may be a paid-up member of the free club but he would have baulked at the need to display his credentials so often.
“That wasn’t the case in my time. There was nearly a cap on frees with refs. It was nearly a max, eight or nine, but you’d rather those games. I don’t think a free-taker even wants to hit 12 or 13 or 14 frees. There’s more chance of error there then.”