The importance of free-taking cannot be overstated.
Just 19 minutes into last year’s first Leinster semi-final game between Dublin and Kilkenny, Anthony Daly hauled off his favoured marksman Paul Ryan.
Two months previous, the forward was the difference in the county’s Division 1B final win over Limerick, scoring 1-7 from placed balls. But having converted just one of three frees and missing a 65 despite the aid of a strong Portlaoise breeze, he was called ashore and free-taking duties were reassigned to Joey Boland.
Ryan returned to the team and frees for the replay six days later when he slotted over six while also posting five wides. The following weekend, he was their best player in their historic Leinster final victory. Quite the metamorphosis over the space of 15 days, but in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork his conversion rate was a mediocre 60%.
However, what Ryan suffered from standing over the ball last summer was catching. Of the six teams left in the championship by the end of July, three of them were forced to change their primary free-taker during games because of inaccuracy. Going now into a ruthless Division 1A and a winner-takes-all Division 1B clash in Cork this evening, the men trusted to penalise fouls and drive over 65s have never been more under the microscope. All-Ireland quarter-final Sunday in Thurles was a crucifying afternoon for the free-takers of the previous year’s finalists, Kilkenny and Galway. In the opener, Kilkenny saw three of their placed ball men return disappointing conversion rates. Eoin Larkin, who had been excellent in finding his range in Henry Shefflin’s absence up until then, had to be replaced by Shefflin who then himself missed from a free before being shown a second yellow card. Richie Power was also off target and between the three of them they pointed just five from 11. Cork won the game by five.
In the second quarter-final between Clare and Galway, Joe Canning suffered the ignominy of being relieved of the frees 13 minutes from time after chalking up four wides and hitting the post with another attempt.
Manager Anthony Cunningham had to defend him afterwards: “No-one is going to blame anybody in our camp. Days they go over and other days they don’t. He hit a bad patch there today.”
However, it was the profligacy of Declan Hannon’s free-taking in the first half of Limerick’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Clare that had most tongues wagging. On the bigger occasion and with Shane Dowling in reserve before converting all six of his second-half frees, Hannon’s four wides from six attempts were held up as the prime example of just how wrought the Munster champions were with nerves on the day.
Like Cunningham, John Allen stood by Hannon as well as his decision to opt for his free-taking over Dowling’s. In doing so, he also revealed Nicky English, an expert freetaker in his own right, had called him just days before the game telling him he was holding Limerick’s best man over a ball in reserve. The former Tipperary star had written the same in his newspaper column in the build-up.
Allen said: “He thought our best freetaker [Dowling] was on the line. Now, I do frees with guys every night before training. Declan Hannon’s striking was superb. The best all year, 10 out of 10, every time. Now Shane’s striking was very good as well. But Declan was ahead of Shane most nights. Statistically speaking, our best free-taker was on the field starting.”
In his piece the day after the game, English didn’t so much write a “told you so” to explain how Hannon’s erratic free-taking had crushed his confidence in general play. But he added: “It proved, yet again, as it did in last week’s semi-final and in both of the quarter-finals, how hugely important it is to have a free-taker in the side.”
Looking back at last year now, English can’t remember a season when placed ball accuracy counted for so much.
“I don’t think the importance of free-taking was ever as clear-cut as last year when it just so happened that on the big occasions when individual players and teams had bad days they didn’t win.
“Another factor was just how close the games were last summer so much so that every individual miss was highlighted. ”
It is hardly coincidental the two teams who reached last year’s All-Ireland final had the best marksmen in Pa Horgan and Colin Ryan. Horgan was close to lethal in his execution, just one long ranger foiling him over the two final matches.
Ryan was metronomically clinical for most of the championship. Even when he put together back-to-back wides in the second half of the replay as Cork scented blood he composed himself to shoot over another two placed balls. From the quarter-finals stages on, Horgan’s conversion rate was just over 90% with Ryan’s reading 85% although the latter had 10 more attempts in scoring range. Advances in skill and technology mean expectations of scoring frees and 65s is now higher than ever before — far more than English’s heyday in the late 1980s, early 1990s.
“When I played excluding the exceptional individuals you were looking at making two out of five 65s. Nowadays making 85 to 100% from the 65 inwards is acceptable, really.”
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