IT was interesting to read the comments during the week from former Waterford player Shane Aherne on the absence of team captain Pauric Mahony from the side that will face Cork in Thurles this afternoon.
Not alone is he the team captain but he’s also a free-taker and a proven expert from the placed ball.
And in the modern game, the consistency of your free-taker was never more important and every county now contains a specialist in that art.
That’s not saying that they are solely employed on the field of play for that purpose but their importance in splitting the sticks cannot be emphasised enough.
On the opening weekend of the season last Saturday and Sunday we all saw the contribution the dead-ball expert made, Aaron Gillane for Limerick, Donal Burke for Dublin and Tony Kelly for Clare.
In Kelly’s case, his performance outside of his free-taking ability was just a joy to behold.
Over the coming days, in Thurles this afternoon, in Croke Park for the Leinster semi-finals and in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow we will see more evidence of the vast importance of the free-taker.
Cork will be relying very heavily on the expertise of Patrick Horgan to produce the goods again.
Of course, in saying that, aside altogether from his placed ball abilities, Cork have been far too reliant on him altogether as an attacking force.
From 70-80 yards out now, even longer a free-taker must have a near 100% return from his free-taking duties and Mahony’s loss to Waterford in Thurles this evening could be keenly felt.
Here’s what Aherne had to say during the week.
“Pauric, for his free-taking alone has been exceptional. He has brought it to a new level here in the county with Waterford and Ballygunner.
“We saw it over last weekend with teams putting up 30 points or more now in games and over half of them coming from frees.
“Stephen Bennett, for us, has been taking frees and doing well, he’s a very good free-taker but you cannot take away from what Pauric has done.
“From that perspective, he’s a big loss for Saturday’’.
The same sentiments would apply if the shoe was on the other foot and Horgan was an absentee for Cork.
There are other fine free-takers in the team but they might not have the consistency that the Glen man has.
One of those free-takers is Darragh Fitzgibbon from Charleville but he is ruled out through injury and that lessens the options somewhat too.
Mark Coleman shot the lights out for Blarney in their terrific Cork PIHC victory and he is one who could be called on if Horgan missed one or two from distance although that is unlikely to happen.
This evening in Croke Park the likelihood is that TJ Reid will bag a big tally for Kilkenny from the dead ball against Dublin and the likelihood is that Donal Burke will do the same for the Dubs.
In what could be the match of the weekend, Wexford and Galway, the near-certainty is that Joe Canning and Lee Chin will have a shootout with the placed balls.
Canning, like Horgan and Reid, has long been recognised as one of the greatest exponents of free-taking and one of the most reliable.
On Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Gillane for Limerick and Callanan or maybe Jason Forde for Tipperary will carry a huge responsibility on their shoulders again with their free-taking duties.
In an article recently, Christy O’Connor from this newspaper outlined what makes a top-notch free-taker.
He said that when they are standing over a free they are locked into a routine, in a zone of their own. They don’t actually hear the noise of the crowd and they rarely miss, he said.
One thing is for certain, there will be no crowd noise this weekend. There is no doubt that these guys, these dead ball experts have set and are continuing to set unique standards.
And perhaps what stands them apart is the confidence in their own ability.
Yes, a good free-taker is now more than ever a key component of any successful team and over the coming days we should get plenty more evidence of that.