Dean Rock spent much of his teenage years kicking goals for Catholic University School’s Junior and Senior Cup rugby teams but no-one had to look very far even then for evidence of his GAA background or signs as to his future sporting path.
It’s not that rugby didn’t beguile him. Jonny Wilkinson was one of his idols growing up and Rock based much of his training on the approach of the famously obsessive England out-half. He would look on in awe at the elaborate technique he employed over dead balls.
Yet that attention to detail never stretched to using a kicking tee for conversions or penalties. Yep, for all Rock’s preparation and commitment, he would simply identify a suitable tuft of grass on which to prop the ball before popping it over the bar.
It captures the essence of the man and the player. Rock kicks frees before and after Dublin training, and again two other days during the week when he launches a hundred or so efforts over the bar at his local pitch, and yet he doesn’t overly complicate it all either.
“It’s an aspect of my game I pride myself on. I have a responsibility to the team when I get a free to stick it over the bar. If I’m not doing the practice, I’m not able to do that for the team. I take responsibility for that and I enjoy going out practising and doing it on the game day as well.”
There is no talk of the mind coaches or visualisation experts that many of his contemporaries in rugby swear by. Ask what triggers he uses to compose himself over a ball and he answers simply that it is about getting his heart rate down.
“The free will be taken when I’m good and ready, I suppose.” It’s what he has always done. Having Barney Rock, one of the most noteworthy men to stand over a dead ball in football history, as your dad was always likely to rub off on him but maybe not quite in the way you might expect.
Dean Rock was just a baby when his father’s inter-county career came to a stop so it was endless days spent hanging around on the sidelines as his dad trained one team or another that actually prompted the kid to practise frees.
Some players have come to see the tag of dead ball specialist as a millstone around their neck, but Rock doesn’t seem bothered by the threat of such pigeon-holing or the pressure the role can bring. There is certainly more to his game than frees though injuries played a part in him having to bide his time and showcase his full range of wares. He is 26 now and it was only last season when he finally broke into the Dublin first 15, though keeping the jersey is as much a task as winning it.
“I’m sure everybody within the squad feels the pressure. Growing up, there’s always been competition for places in the Dublin minors, 21s, seniors. It’s the norm for me, it’s the norm for every player in the squad to have that pressure on your back.”
There is an appealing openness and transparency to Rock. You believe him when he says playing for this team and with these players makes for the time of his life and the approach of the manager has made the Dublin experience all the sweeter.
Jim Gavin continues to espouse an attacking philosophy in an era dominated by defensive thinking and Rock speaks enthusiastically of a culture that allows players to attempt a killer pass safe in the knowledge that failure will not see them convicted in the court of caution.
Westmeath players and management have spoken about their desire to play a more attacking game in Sunday’s Leinster final than was the case when they met last summer but the odds are the midlanders will still flood back in numbers in order to frustrate Dublin. There is nothing new in that.
Rock’s first experience of massed defensive systems was as a member of Gavin’s U21 side that defeated Jim McGuinness’ Donegal in the grade’s All-Ireland final of 2010 and you wonder would he enjoy his football as much if he was seconded to a system with that more pragmatic touch.
“It’s hard to know because growing up, playing through minor and U21s with Dublin and senior level, I’ve always played that kind of attacking football. Even with Ballymun, the club, we’ve always had a way of playing in terms of an attacking sense, as well.
“I don’t really know what way I feel about it because I wasn’t on that side of the field. Certainly, I’m enjoying my football, enjoying playing on teams that like to go out and express themselves and play good, flowing, attacking football.”
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