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Thursday 29 September 2016

Rock right on target

Dean has moved out of father's shadow

Dean Rock in action for Dublin during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dean Rock in action for Dublin during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Barney Rock takes a free against Kerry during the 1985 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

To fully understand the tale of Dean Rock's 2016, it's pertinent first to flick through the pages of his 2015.

The story goes that during a raw post mortem of Dublin's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal in 2014, Bernard Brogan said he had found free-taking somthing of a burden.

While his two second-half misses weren't exactly terminal that day, they hadn't help slow the bleeding either and mostly, Brogan wore the task of being the team's right-footed kicker like a millstone that summer.

Their left-footed free-taker, Stephen Cluxton, missed a couple as well and the logistics involved in having a 'keeper travel so far from his goal were perhaps more hassle than his accuracy was worth.

Step forward Dean Rock.

Last year, he started every one of Dublin's matches, from O'Byrne Cup into spring and through summer, remarkable given that until 2015 Rock had never started a League game.

He had, despite his prominence in squads under both Pat Gilroy and Jim Gavin, made just two substitutes appearances pre-summer.

Marriage

Otherwise, he'd been injured (thrice) or wrapped up with Ballymun Kickhams and their 2013 All-Ireland club campaign.

But Dublin needed a specialist free-taker. Rock craved a sustained run in the team.

One All-Ireland later and it was the obvious footballing marriage in the world.

That then, is the story of Rock's 2015.

It finished well but didn't completely dispel the notion that Dublin, like teams of yore, had 'carried' a free-taker.

It hadn't quelled talk that Rock's bona fides as a starting front six man - place-kicking aside - weren't as complete as some who started on the bench last year.

Exhibit A: his half-time substitution in the All-Ireland final for Kevin McManamon.

Now?

There is hardly a more undroppable player in the Dublin attack.

His free-taking percentages are the stuff the all-time records, if such records were kept by the GAA.

Rock has, seemingly, found a yard of pace at the age of 26.

Take his skinning of both marker (Mark Griffin) and sweeper (Aidan O'Mahony) for Philly McMahon's early goal chance in the All-Ireland semi-final as the most recent and pressing example of this.

And his work rate is setting new standards.

"He's lasting the pace - that's the difference," says Tom Cribbin, the Westmeath manager who pitted his team against Dublin in the Leinster final.

"Whatever kind of training he's done over the winter, and fitness work he's done, he's able to last the pace no problem at that intensity now.

"As well as stamina-wise lasting the game, he actually seems to have got a yard of pace as well, from somewhere."

"Some of my defenders this year," he told the Herald, "when the GPS was on them, the players that covered the most ground in the Dublin game were my defenders.

"And that will tell you how hard the Dublin forwards work. Your full-back line is actually covering ten-and-a-half kilometres.

"It's incredible. Dean Rock's workrate is the equivalent of any inter-county midfielder, he's working that hard on the pitch.

"And I don't think people realise and see that in him. But when you have your corner-backs on GPS and these are the results coming back … you study the DVD and we got it hard to keep with their forwards."

Last year, his free-taking standards dipped as the air became more rarified in the All-Ireland semi-final and final.

Now, he's at 93 per cent for the season, or 38 from 41 dead ball strikes.

In both accuracy and distance, Rock has made distinct and discernable improvements.

"I think you learn from the experience," says Tomás Quinn, the former Dublin freetaker still converting high numbers for St Vincent's.

"He would have learned from the ones he missed last year.

"Every free-taker tries to learn. You have a very selective memory so when something goes well, that's the one you tend to remember.

"But afterwards, when you analyse if you've missed one, you think 'did I push it? Did I pull it?'

"When you think about how well he did the last day, the only one he missed was a few yards outside the '45. So it's a low percentage one.

"But he'll have looked at that and said 'did I force it a little bit because I was a couple of yards further out?'

"If he gets one from the same range the next day, you probably won't see the exact same kick."

"The one thing I find interesting is how he can go from out of his hands from 35 or 40 yards to off the ground from outside that," Quinn continues.

"It's pretty seamless and that's a hard thing to do.

"He obviously spends a lot of time on both for him to be comfortable enough to do that, particularly at the level he's doing it at."

Where the improvement in Rock's place-kicking has come, Quinn isn't exactly sure.

There is, he notes, no prime age for a free-taker, though confidence and security in his starting spot has seemed to help.

"So much of it is to do with mindset," Quinn points out.

"You hear words like repetition and routine and they are really important.

"Sometimes, when it's going well - you're high on confidence and Dean is, because he's doing well from play as well.

"Everything he stands over, he's probably feeling good about himself because he's contributing and that definitely will rub off on his free taking."

Incredible

He will, no doubt, finish the summer as Championship top scorer.

A good final performance and a first All Star is also almost assured.

Rock then, is no longer just Dublin's free-taker or, for that matter, merely 'Barney's son.'

"I think people are inclined to look at him and underestimate him, because maybe he doesn't have the same pace of some of the other players," Cribbn adds.

"But it's not his pace, it's his workrate, it's his unselfishness, the way he's well able to give that ball to anyone to make sure that they get scores."

"Everyone talks about Bernard the whole time," he concludes, "but for me, Dean Rock has been just incredible all year."

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