When the news filtered out of Pauric Mahony’s atrocious injury a few weeks back, it changed tomorrow’s terms of engagement at a stroke. For all that was talked about Waterford’s system, the most important element of it has always been hidden in plain sight.
The rampant youth and vitality of Derek McGrath’s side wouldn’t be much more use to them if it wasn’t for Mahony’s free-taking. The rest of them could drive for show, safe in the knowledge that Mahony would putt for dough.
Over the course of the eight games it took Waterford to win the league, Mahony's free-taking (including 65s) was responsible for 33.5 per cent of their scores. He finished the league with 1-90 to his name, 0-70 from dead balls. Only Offaly's Shane Dooley was responsible for a bigger chunk of his side's scoring burden across the top two divisions, contributing 37.9 percent of Offaly's totals from the ground.
The key comparison though is with Patrick Horgan, with whom Mahony finished the league in a dead heat for top scorer.
Horgan’s free-taking made up 0-64 of Cork’s scorelines, or 31.6 per cent. Both are astronomical contributions – Horgan’s championship record since taking over the Cork frees from Ben O’Connor in 2011 is a slightly more earthbound 24.5 per cent. One way or the other, Waterford have to match or better him tomorrow without Mahony to do it for them.
In his absence, Maurice Shanahan would usually step in but his involvement looks like being unclear right up until the ball is thrown in. While Austin Gleeson will take long-range frees and 65s, the regular workaday frees are up for grabs. Jake Dillon takes frees for De La Salle, Stephen Bennett for Ballysaggart. We won't know until we know.
But the point is, Waterford would have faced into the summer presuming this was something they didn’t have to think about. Mahony was a death and taxes job, boxed off and squared away. Everything is a little less secure for them now.
“It’s a huge factor,” says local WLR commentator Kieran O’Connor. “If you’re playing against Waterford and Mahony is in the team, you have to be so careful about how you tackle and where you foul. Now, there’s that bit less certainty and Cork will be able to take a few more chances.
"He's like what Ronan O'Gara was to Munster or Johnny Sexton to Ireland. He's more than a free-taker but his frees are impeccable."
In modern hurling, the use of a premium free-taker has long since moved beyond the desirable to the essential.
Gone are the days – illustrated in the accompanying graphic – when Clare could win an All-Ireland scoring 10 frees and four 65s in an entire championship as they did in 1995. Or when Wexford could get away with an average of three pointed frees a game, as in 1996.
“The highest tally I ever scored for Clare was nine points, I think,” says Jamesie O’Connor, free-taker in that Clare team of 20 years ago. “And four of those were from play. The elite guys at the very top, their conversion rates are unbelievable now.
“The game has certainly got faster. We thought it was fast when I was playing but there’s no doubt it’s faster now. I think teams have made more of a point of aggressively running at defenders than would have been the case 20 years ago as well. If you run at enough defenders, you are going to draw frees.
“They’re striking the ball better, the ball is going further and truer than it used to. And obviously there’s an increase in the amount that is being scored. I mean, three-and-a-half frees a game over the course of a championship seems crazy now.”
Bit by bit over the two decades since, the average number of frees scored per game has ticked upwards. Scores in general have risen as well, fed by a succession of teams that knew they just couldn’t survive without a reliable, prolific free-taker.
It is no coincidence that the spike over the past 15 seasons coincided with the career of Henry Shefflin. Tipp had Eoin Kelly and Cork shared the job between Joe Deane and Ben O'Connor to terrific effect. But when the awesome Kilkenny team of the noughties was in full cry, Shefflin's frees were the dripping tap.
A one-man rising tide, it's arguable that his greatest legacy to the game is the current preponderance of dead-shot free-takers. For Mahony and Horgan, see Clare's Colin Ryan and Kilkenny's TJ Reid.
If Limerick are to get where they want to go, Shane Dowling has to join them. Ditto Dublin and David Treacy. The difference between sinking and swimming.
“Go back to last Sunday,” says O’Connor.
"David Treacy had a really good game for Dublin, didn't miss one all day. But obviously, the one he did miss at a crucial stage in the game probably cost Dublin the win. The game hinged on that free, which is harsh on David Treacy but that's what it came down to. People remember the game for that and not the couple of bad misses Joe Canning had.
“Mahony is top class, he’s as good a free-taker as there is in the country. There isn’t much between these two sides and it’s not hard to see it coming down to a late free that has to be scored. If it’s a real pressure one or one from an acute angle, that’s when he’ll be missed. That’s something that could decide the game.”
Derek McGrath has thought his way around every problem that he’s come across so far in the job. Finding a way to balance out the lost weight of Mahony’s contribution looks like his greatest test yet.