THE three quarter-finals of the league confirmed one thing for us, the importance of an accurate free-taker, one that nine times out of 10 will split the sticks from advantageous positions and on other occasions from disadvantageous ones.
Just look at the stats from the games involving Waterford and Clare and Galway and Wexford.
The outcome of both games was decided by the sheer accuracy of Stephen Bennett from Waterford and Joe Canning from Galway.
Bennett nailed 14 points from dead-ball situations in Walsh Park while Canning posted 14 more for Galway in Pearse Stadium.
In the absence of Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane shot seven points for Cork in their victory over Kilkenny at Nowlan Park.
Jason Forde wasn’t as accurate for Tipperary in their loss to Dublin as he had been a week earlier against Cork but he still converted quite a few.
Cork’s win over Clare in February was only secured because of the unerring accuracy of Patrick Horgan Free taking and its accuracy has always played a huge part in the outcome of major games but now it seems it’s more important than ever.
And it’s got to the stage that all the leading counties need not one but two players who are capable of stepping up to the pate.
And that’s the way it’s panning out. Bennett has taken over the free-taking duties in Waterford from Pauric Mahony and is certainly doing the business at the moment.
Jason Forde and Seamus Callanan are sharing the duties in the Premier County while if Horgan is absent, injured or has an off day, Lehane can step up to the plate.
In Clare’s demise to Waterford. Peter Duggan secured 1-7 from the placed ball, from a penalty, frees and a sideline strike.
Limerick have two of the best dead-ball men in the business in Adian Gilllane and Shane Dowling while Kilkenny have one of the best around in TJ Reid.
Of course, it’s all about consistency and being able to maintain that consistency over the course of a season.
No player is ever going to have a 100% return from those placed balls but it’s getting to the stage now where the margins are getting tighter every day.
It’s no good nailing four or five and then missing the next four or five.
Canning, Horgan and TJ Reid are probably the most consistent trio in the country over the past number of years and they have decided the outcome of a fair few games.
It’s got to the stage now that there’s an expectation on these guys to split the posts from as far out as 80, 90 or 100 yards.
That’s how the game is now, county finals, provincial finals and All-Ireland finals being decided by scores from the accuracy of the aforementioned.
The three games last Saturday were difficult to analyse but, without doubt, the best performance of the day came from Waterford.
Putting 31 points on the board in very difficult conditions was some going while at the same time Clare were very feeble.
Of course, this game was a sort of dress rehearsal for their championship meeting at the same venue in May and you would be inclined to read something into that if maybe not a whole pile given the inconsistent nature of the league.
But it was, nonetheless, a pretty strong performance by the home team and, apart from Bennett’s accuracy, the return of Austin Gleeson was another huge positive.
He scored five points from play from wing-forward, proving again his great versatility and how important he is to Waterford.
There seems to be a perception that Waterford are the outsiders in the forthcoming Munster championship but this observer does not go along with that at all.
On their day, this Waterford team will trouble the best and remember last season how unlucky they were with injuries and one or two major decisions that went against them.
Now their preparations for that return date with Clare are moving along nicely and irrespective of how they fare next Sunday against Galway, new boss Padraic Fanning must be pleased with how things are going.
They were helped last Saturday by Clare’s indiscipline and that’s something that will have to be addressed in the Banner County in the weeks ahead.
Things will be much tighter in May in a packed Walsh Park but the men from the Deise have surely put down an early marker.