Following in master O’Connor’s footsteps

Clare free-taker Colin Ryan learned from the best while at school at St Flannan’s


The last thing any Clare free-taker needs going into an All-Ireland hurling final is any comparison with Jamesie O’Connor, although with Colin Ryan, it is both justified and inevitable.

Not since O’Connor dominated the scoring charts in both 1995 and 1997 have Clare boasted such a prolific marksman, and Ryan credits much of his free-taking to what he learned from O’Connor himself at school at St Flannan’s in Ennis, where O’Connor is a teacher.

Although just 25, Ryan qualifies as one of the most senior members of Davy Fitzgerald’s panel and displays the maturity to handle whatever responsibilities fall his way.

Scoring charts
His tally from Clare’s six games so far is 0-51, including 0-11 in their semi-final win over Limerick. With that he tops the 2013 hurling scoring charts, and his only rival left at this stage is Cork’s Patrick Horgan, with his 1-30.

“Listen, you hear people talking about individual performances and stuff like that,” says Ryan, “it takes 15 lads to win, plus the five lads that come in, to do the job. So you’re just happy to play your part.”

These words fit perfectly into Fitzgerald’s hurling philosophy: “It’s about intelligent hurling,” says Ryan. “We’re trying to move the ball into the best possible situation to give ourselves a 70 per cent chance of scoring rather, than a 50-50 chance. That’s exactly what we’re looking for in the way we play.

“The games along the way have also helped us, in that we’ve cut out a lot of mistakes, maybe our decision-making has got better.

“But no more so than Cork. Our biggest philosophy is, I suppose, the pace we hurl at, moving the ball, and making the right decisions.”

Ryan talks openly about his free-taking technique, and the small little decisions he must make when lining up the ball in front of the posts, no matter the distance.

“Well, from a very young age I would have always been given the frees to take, for the club and with the county. And I’ve been blessed to be involved with Flannan’s teams with Jamesie O’Connor, who was one of the best free-takers around in his time.

“But it’s something you always have to work on. I’ve done a lot of work with Paul Kinnerk too, our coach, on routine and the mental side of things.

“His enthusiasm for the whole thing is absolutely massive for a guy that’s no more than a few years older than most of the players.

“The ideas and stuff he brings are just amazing, and the amount he thinks about the game and reads the game and sees in the game is just massive for us.

“But at the end of the day when things are going well, it comes very naturally. And the last day (against Limerick) there was very little thought put into them, when they’re are flying over like that.”

When they’re not “flying over”, however, things get more interesting. One the things Ryan has been working on this summer is the mental component of free-taking, and it’s mostly about eliminating any distractions.

The mental side
“What has changed over the last couple of years is the amount the mental side plays in it. I keep saying that word “mental”, but it’s massive for a free-taker. And I’ve read the books from the likes of Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Wilkinson and you take a lot from what they do, and how consistent they’ve been over the years.

“It’s mostly about making sure you’re keeping to the same thing, all the time, and cutting out the variables that won’t affect the free.

“To be honest, we’ve simplified it to such a level it’s hard to make a mistake with it. I line my left shoulder up to where I want to hit the ball.

The same way
And I place the ball the same way all the time, the ridges facing back towards, where I’m picking it, and after that all I’m concentrating on is picking the ball correctly, and following through.

“If you strike a ball well enough, there’s very little wind going to affect it. Small variables like that are taken out of it because all I’m thinking about is lifting the ball correctly, and following through.

“You have to step into the ball and carry your weight into it to carry the ball a long distance.”