The Christy O'Connor column: Cork are lucky to have one of hurling's dead-ball specialists

The Christy O'Connor column: Cork are lucky to have one of hurling's dead-ball specialists
Patrick Horgan nails a free. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

IN the 72nd minute of the recent hurling league final, TJ Reid finally looked human when he missed a scoring chance for the first time in the match - a long range free 90 metres from goal, which just drifted wide.

Reid ended with 0-15, the same total he clocked in Kilkenny's previous week's semi-final win against Wexford. And yet despite that tally, Reid wasn't the top scorer in the league final; Tipperary's Jason Forde racked up 2-12.

Of that combined total from Reid and Forde, 1-23 came from placed balls. But it was an absolute exhibition of dead-ball striking.

Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Forde didn't miss a placed ball all afternoon. His only wide came from play in the first half, which was a low percentage shot that just tailed outside the post.

The quality of dead-ball striking from Forde and Reid was further underlined with both players also nailing points from side-line cuts. It was dead-eye stuff all afternoon but the standard of dead-ball striking has become so high now that that kind of a merciless level is almost expected off inter-county players.

Cork are lucky to have one of the best exponents of the art in Patrick Horgan. Just before half-time in last year's Munster final, Horgan scored his fifth point, which steered him past Christy Ring as the highest scoring Cork player in history. The score also bumped Horgan into the top five highest scoring hurlers of all time.

Three of the four players ahead of Horgan also belong to the modern era - Henry Shefflin, Eoin Kelly and Joe Canning - while Kilkenny's Eddie Keher completes the top five. Horgan is the only one of the five without an All-Ireland medal but his championship total now of 12-288 (324) from 45 games, with an average of 7.2, is deserving of his top-five position.

Since taking over the Cork frees from Ben O'Connor in 2011, Horgan has accounted for 27.9% of Cork's overall scoring total from placed balls. Horgan didn't start the 2017 championship as Cork's first-choice freetaker but he was handed that responsibility for the Munster semi-final against Waterford when Conor Lehane was carrying an ankle injury. Horgan nailed eight placed balls from nine attempts that afternoon. He ended the championship with an 89% conversion rate from placed balls.

Keher was the original Godfather but, like Shefflin, Canning and Kelly, Horgan is one of the greatest freetakers the game has seen. They have set a unique standard because most of the top teams now have dead-ball experts who rarely miss. In the 2017 championship, Canning and Pauric Mahony hit an aggregate of 0-72 from placed balls.

A clutch free-taker has become a priority but expanding that portfolio has become even more important after last September's Special Congress ruled that if certain knockout matches end in a draw after extra time, and are still level after two additional five-minute periods of extra time, the result will be determined by a free-taking competition.

The Kilkenny-Wexford Walsh Cup final in January was decided in that manner before the whole country witnessed the drama first-hand in the Clare-Limerick league quarter-final in March.

At the end of the second period of extra time, the crowd in the Gaelic Grounds rose to their feet, applauded the players for a heroic effort, and remained standing, giddy with excitement and nervous energy, enthralled by the freetaking competition to come, and the history that went it.

The atmosphere was reminiscent of Thomond Park, just over the road, the crowd remaining silent and respectful as the ten nominated players stood over their placed balls. The standard and quality remained as high as what had been served up over the previous 100 minutes. The first ten frees were nailed. Peter Duggan and Aaron Gillane converted the first two placed balls in sudden death too before Niall Deasy missed. That finally gave Colin Ryan the chance - which he took - to drive Limerick into the league semi-final.

The drama that evening underlined the importance of having a number of clutch freetakers. But having one who rarely misses is absolutely paramount given how much the game has changed. When Clare won the 1995 All-Ireland, they scored just 14 placed balls in the entire championship, four of which were '65s. In last year's championship, Galway scored 0-35 from placed balls, an average of just over 0-7 per game. Tipperary's total from placed balls in their 2016 All-Ireland winning season was almost identical, 1-35.

Those numbers are in sync with the increase in overall scoring trends. Galway averaged 44 shots per game last summer, with just over 20% of those coming from placed balls. Increased strength and conditioning levels, along with a lighter sliotar, has further expanded the striking range but with players aggressively running at defenders a lot more now, there are more frees conceded. And scored.

Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Eoin Kelly never missed a single free in his three All-Ireland senior final appearances but with such a high increase in standards comes increased pressure. "In my time, fellas often missed frees and there wasn't much thought about it," said former Waterford player, Paul Flynn, a couple of years ago. "But it's almost a shock if a fella misses a free now."

Pauric Mahony is a superb freetaker but when Ballygunner lost the Munster club final to Na Piarsaigh in November, Mahony's six missed frees were the key talking point afterwards. It was a disappointing strike rate but two of the three which dropped short were from a huge distance while the wet and windy conditions made it an extremely difficult afternoon for freetaking.

Mahony just got back up on the horse again with Waterford and Ballygunner this spring, continuing to do what freetakers do; spending countless hours honing technique, perfecting striking, fine-tuning routine.

Obsessive perseverance and the strict adherence to those principles are the cornerstones of most great freetakers. And anyone down around the Glen, watching Horgan hit thousands of frees, will admit as much.

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