Free-taking at the highest level is the ultimate sporting gut-check – The Irish Times

All in all, Kilkenny’s forward Miriam Walsh’s foul from 47 yards from goal in the first minute of added time at the end of last Sunday’s All-Ireland Senior Camogie Final wasn’t the worst decision in the world.

It would be the kind of free teams would expect to land their freetakers under most ordinary circumstances, but last Sunday’s game was no ordinary circumstance for Kilkenny.

Denise Gaule, a five-time All-Star and two-time Player of the Year, is her regular but has had a hot time struggling with it. After a tough day of placing in the quarters against Dublin, she relinquished responsibility in the semis after missing her first pair, and she did the same on Sunday after missing her first free.

Katie Nolan had been a perfectly capable substitute, hitting two from dead balls 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 clear just in front of the post as she died chance to put Kilkenny up a point.

Seven minutes later they got another chance from 25 yards on the left side of their attack. Gaule trotted over to win that one, with Kilkenny two points behind. It wasn’t a challenging shot for a ball forward of her quality.

The referees were so shocked that it was going too far that they let Hawkeye down, just to be sure. If they saw Gaule’s face on the big screen, they wouldn’t have had to wait for the technology – she already had her eyes on the sky.

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Her reaction to this was to chase the puck out, dispossess her opponent and start the move, which ended in Sophie O’Dwyer’s decisive goal.

For all we can talk about technique and repeatable routines, free-taking at the highest level is the ultimate athletic gut check. It’s the first minute of added time in an All-Ireland final and you’ve got two walkaways, both of whom missed their last few shots. There’s no easy answer to this riddle…perhaps that’s why Cork would have felt quite comfortable asking that question in the dying embers of an All-Ireland final.

Katie Nolan’s previous miss had come from almost exactly that position on the field. Gaule was out of shape, having missed the two frees she made that day – but she’s got pedigree, she’s got temper and she’s got a store of experience. From the moment it left her Hurley, it was heading straight for the black spot.

The closing banquet of men’s All-Ireland football isn’t often the place to hear searing personal insights, but Sean O’Shea’s answer to Joanne Cantwell’s question a few weeks ago about the last second to make Dublin in space- Beating Ireland semi-finals – The final was about as illuminating an answer to the issue of free-taking and placekicking in a broader sporting context as you’re likely to hear.

“When you’re in Kenmare you pretend you’re in Croke Park, and when you’re in Croke Park you pretend you’re back in Kenmare.” It was beautifully put – it sums up the benefits of practice to rely on technique and try to repeat what you have done before, even under the most difficult circumstances.

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O’Shea hasn’t missed too many times in his career, and he at least had the safety net of the threat of extra time if he missed. Rian O’Neill isn’t lacking in confidence either, but he had no such safety net when he ordered that miracle shot to level Armagh against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

On the other hand, O’Neill’s kick was so far out that he was almost barred from any real criticism if he missed… honestly, there aren’t many people who are able to, once in 50 tries to score from that position, whether you’re playing around at Kenmare, Crossmaglen or in an All-Ireland quarter-final at Croker.

Gaules Free wasn’t nearly as difficult as their effort, but the more I think about it, the more Gaules Free last Sunday was the ultimate pressure shot. At a moment in your career when every single part of taking the time off is a chore in order to win an All-Ireland, a superbly scoreable free.

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

In moments like this, you look for something to boost your confidence. With O’Shea it was a trip back to the square in Kenmare.

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For Gaule, it was the simple belief that she’d been there before, worked harder than anyone to help her team get into position to win the game, and most importantly – when things went too far, she would just chase the next ball with everything she had. It was enough to ensure glory for her county on Sunday.

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