Free-taking master Colin Ryan aims to keep it simple in final's loneliest role
Clare sharpshooter hopes his hours of practice in front of the posts will pay off in Croke Park showdown
THE free-taker is a man alone. There's no hiding place, no nuances, no shades of grey. The ball either goes over the bar or it doesn't. Success or failure. Hero or villain.
Just as well, then, that those in the elite band of free-takers are bred to it and become hardened to the rigours and vagaries of their craft.
In no other role is the need for self-control and detachment from tension and criticism so vital. That's why routine is so important for Colin Ryan, Clare's main man in the placed-ball stakes.
To date, the 25-year-old school teacher is the leading scorer in the championship, with 0-51 to his credit. Only seven of those points came from play. The others were 38 frees and six from '65s'.
It's a fine scoring rate and so valuable to Clare, but successful execution owes much to hours and hours of practice, both mental and physical.
Ryan's line to the Cork posts in Sunday's All-Ireland final will depend on the habits bred into him by that repetition. 'Keep it simple' is his mantra as he verbalises the routine which is second nature to him now.
"I line my left shoulder up to where I want to hit the ball. 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," said Ryan.
"If you strike a ball well enough, there's very little wind is 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."
Are free-takers born or made? All Ryan knows is that he's been in that role for as long as he has played hurling.
"From a very young age, I would have always been given the frees to take for the club and with the county.
"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.
"It's something you always have to work on. I've also done a lot of work with Paul Kinnerk, our coach, this year on routine and the mental side of things. At the end of the day, when things are going well, it comes very naturally," he said.
Croke Park was noisy for the semi-final, but when it's filled to the brim with fervent fans and with a thunderous level of noise echoing around the magnificent stadium on Sunday, Ryan still has to get the job done.
For all the tension and intense build-up to the final against Cork, there's no doubt the experience gained in the semi-final win over neighbours Limerick will stand to Clare as a group and Ryan as an individual.
"The one thing I would have found the last day was the noise was absolutely extraordinary, so things like calls and stuff like that go out the window," said Ryan.
"On frees, the noise from the stands doesn't really matter. What I'm doing is picking a point that I'm hitting to behind the goal, so my peripheral vision or anything like that doesn't really come into it.
"Lucky enough in Croke Park, there's plenty of flag posts and advertising signs that I'll be concentrating on rather than concentrating on the crowd.
"Shooting into Hill 16, I'd aim at a flag post or something like that. Shooting into the Canal End, it would maybe be an advertising board."
Of course, it can all go wrong, as Limerick's Declan Hannon discovered in the semi-final, and Ryan accepts that it's an occupational hazard.
"We all have days like that," he said. "It was just unfortunate for Declan that it happened on such a big stage. I suppose that's the most unfortunate thing for him at such a young age, that it did happen in a crowded stadium.
"You'd have to feel sorry for him. He's a fierce nice fella and I'm sure he works awful hard on his game, no more so than anybody else does. It happens.
"I had one of those days only this year in a club championship game against Kilmaley at Cusack Park where literally everything I hit went skew-ways. But you just have to reassess and work hard, make sure you're set in your routine and that you know what you're doing every day you go out there."