Ciarán Murphy: Free-taking at the highest level is the ultimate sporting gut-check

Denise Gaule’s free in last Sunday’s All-Ireland camogie final was the ultimate pressure shot

On balance, fouling Kilkenny’s full-forward Miriam Walsh 47 metres out from goal, in the first minute of injury time at the end of last Sunday’s All-Ireland senior camogie final, was not the worst decision in the world.

It would be the sort of free that teams would expect their free-takers to land in most ordinary circumstances, but last Sunday’s game was not an ordinary circumstance for Kilkenny.

Denise Gaule, five-time All Star and two-time Player of the Year, is their regular free-taker but had been enduring a torrid time of it. After a tough day with placed balls in the quarter-final against Dublin, she relinquished the responsibility in the semi-final after missing her first couple, and she did likewise on Sunday after she’d missed her first free.

Katie Nolan had been a perfectly capable stand-in, hitting two from dead-balls to go with three more from play, but as the temperature rose with 10 minutes to go on Sunday afternoon, Katie had her first wide from a free directly in front of the posts when she had a chance to put Kilkenny a point up.

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They were given another chance from 25 metres out, on the left hand side of their attack seven minutes later. Gaule trotted over to take this one, with Kilkenny two points down. It was not a challenging shot for a ball-striker of her quality.

The umpires were so shocked it went wide they deferred to Hawkeye just to make sure. If they had seen Gaule’s face on the big screen they wouldn’t have had to wait for the technology — she had already cast her eyes to heaven.

Her reaction after that was to chase down the puck-out, dispossess her opponent, and start the move that ended with Sophie O’Dwyer’s match-turning goal.

For all that we can talk about technique and repeatable routines, free-taking at the highest level is the ultimate sporting gut-check. It’s the first minute of injury time in an All-Ireland final, and you have two free-takers, both of whom have missed their last efforts at goal. There is no easy answer to that conundrum ... maybe that’s why Cork might have felt reasonably comfortable asking that question in the dying embers of an All-Ireland final.

Katie Nolan’s earlier miss had come from almost that exact position on the field. Gaule was out of form, had missed the two frees she’d taken that day — but she has pedigree, she has temperament, and she has a store of experience. From the moment it left her hurley, it was headed straight for the black spot.

The All-Ireland men’s football final banquet is not often the place to hear searing personal insight, but Sean O’Shea’s answer to Joanne Cantwell’s question a couple of weeks ago about the last-second free to beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final was about as revealing an answer about free-taking, and placekicking in a more general sporting context, as you’re likely to hear.

“When you’re in Kenmare you’re pretending you’re in Croke Park, and when you’re in Croke Park you pretend you’re back in Kenmare.” It was beautifully put — summing up the benefit of practice, of relying on technique, and of trying to replicate what you’ve done before, even in the most trying of circumstances.

O’Shea hasn’t had too many misses in his career, and he at least had the safety net of extra-time looming if he had missed. Rian O’Neill is not short of confidence either, but he had no such safety-net as he lined up that miracle shot to bring Armagh level against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

On the other hand O’Neill’s kick was so far out as to almost preclude him from any real criticism if it had gone wide ... quite frankly, there aren’t many people capable of scoring from that position once in 50 attempts, whether you’re messing around in Kenmare, Crossmaglen or in an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croker.

Gaule’s free was nowhere near as objectively difficult as either of their efforts, but the more I think about it, the more Gaule’s free last Sunday was the ultimate pressure shot. A eminently scoreable free, at a moment in your career when every single part of free-taking is a chore, to win an All-Ireland.

But players don’t take frees in a vacuum. Their performance in open play obviously has an impact. If Gaule hadn’t won the turn-over that forced the late goal, if she hadn’t immediately erased the error of missing the earlier free through her own hard work, would she have been able to stand over the final free to seal the win?

It’s in moments like that you search for something to reaffirm your self-belief. With O’Shea it was a trip back to the pitch in Kenmare.

For Gaule, it was the simple belief that she had been there before, had worked harder than anyone to help her team get into position to win the game, and most of all — if it did go wide, she’d just chase the next ball with all she had. It was enough to secure glory for her county on Sunday.