DEAN ROCK ESCAPES HARD PLACE TO FINALLY BECOME CONTENDER FOR DUBLIN.
On Monday, October 26th, 2009, a snippet at the bottom of the one of The Irish Times GAA pages carried brief mention of the weekend’s interprovincial matches. A Leinster team managed by Pillar Caffrey had suffered a 1-14 to 1-10 defeat to Ulster in Crossmaglen but the report singled out free-taking accuracy of the Leinster full-forward all the same. Stitched onto the end of it in small type, the details. D Rock (Dublin 0-4, frees).
Dean Rock was 19 at the time. He was in good company on the bus north that afternoon. Filling out the full forward line, he had Dennis Glennon on one side and Bernard Brogan on the other. Joe Sheridan, Billy Sheehan and Paul Flynn were the half forwards. Jason Sherlock came off the bench.
Future and past All-Ireland winners, Leinster medallists, All Stars and All Star nominees. Yet although Brogan, Glennon and Sheridan had all kicked frees for their county through the previous summer, it was to Rock that they handed the ball when it came to keeping the scoreboard ticking. On a gusty day of insubordinate weather, he didn’t let anyone down.
Stop the clock in October 2009 and it would have been reasonable to assume that the next Dublin starlet had just been ushered onstage. Only a year out of minor, Rock had already been the leading scorer on the Dublin under-21 team that won Leinster and got pipped by the odd point in an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork.
And though the name rang out, he had a body of work behind him.
Nobody pretended that the interpros were what they used to be – even so, a young kid kicking frees for Leinster before he’d played senior for Dublin had to have something about him, regardless of whose son he was.
A surname never kicked a point.
Last Sunday in Páirc Uí Rinn, Dublin came up one short in an entertaining league encounter against Cork. Dean Rock ended the day on eight points, four of them from frees. He was at the heart of most of what Dublin did well in attack, with Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O’Gara feeding off his astute movement and passing. He looked comfortable and fluid and classy, every inch the fulfilment of all that teenage promise.
Here’s the thing, though. Last Sunday was the first time Rock has ever started league game for Dublin. It was his first time playing the full 70 minutes in league or championship.
O’Byrne Cup games aside, it was his first time starting and finishing a game in a blue jersey since the All-Ireland under-21 final against Donegal in 2010, the one that ended with Michael Murphy’s penalty clattering the crossbar. Jim Gavin and Jim McGuinness were the opposing managers that day. A lifetime ago.
“Yeah, that my first ever start in a league game,” he says. “It was good, scored a few points, enjoyable game. I’m loving getting a run of games. I’ve only ever started seven games for Dublin and six of them have been in the last month.”
But how? In the five full campaigns that slipped by since Rock was a 19-year-old full-forward for Leinster, 30 different players started league games as Dublin forwards. None of them was Dean Rock. He will be 25 in just over a fortnight. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Some of it was bad luck. He’d have been a cert to play last year but for knee surgery that took the whole of the spring to get over. He might have crowbarred his way in during his final year as an under-21 only for a hamstring torn clean off the bone in February 2011. Next time he kicked a ball, Christmas was coming.
Some of it was them plain not fancying him, which hurt a damn sight more than the injuries. He was in and around Pat Gilroy’s panel during the 2012 league and though he was probably there to keep the previous year’s All-Ireland winners honest, he felt he was doing okay. When he put up a big score for Ballymun in the first round of the club championship, he reckoned he was set fair for the summer. The phonecall blindsided him when it came.
“It was the same night that Chelsea were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. I got a call that evening and it came as a surprise, really. In my own mind, I was moving well and I actually thought I had a chance of playing against Wexford in the first game in Leinster.
“So to go from thinking that to finding out that I wasn’t even in the championship panel, it came out of the blue for me. And you kind of think to yourself, ‘Jesus, where do I go to from here?’ It was just a very simple phonecall to say I wasn’t in his plans. It was tough because obviously back then I wasn’t as mature about things as I am now.
“It certainly was a good thing I think because I basically went back to the club and said, ‘Right, we’re going to win a club championship.’ I started playing great football – not that I wasn’t playing great football before. But I got mentally tougher. I prioritised the things I needed to work on and we won the Dublin championship and then the Leinster championship as well.”
Rock was always a dead-ball specialist. At school, he played more rugby than football, purely because there was more rugby than football to be played. Catholic University School on Leeson Street wouldn’t be what you’d call a GAA nursery so Rock played for their rugby team. The kicker, naturally.
“We just about scraped a Gaelic team together by the time I was leaving,” he says. “They were more a cricket school and a rugby school. I wasn’t ever going to be playing cricket so I got big into rugby. I played all six years there.
“I would have modelled myself on Jonny Wilkinson. How he kicks, what he does in his routine, why he addressed the ball the way he did. I was mad into all that. Technique, follow-through, everything. When people were kind of laughing at the way he put his hands out in front of him and all that, I was more in awe than anything.
“The technique with kicking frees isn’t too different. I have my routine and I do it all completely unconsciously now. It’s a big part of the game and I’d like to think I’m one of the better ones at it. Every team needs a good free-taker and if I can be that, great. I know myself that I do a lot more for the team than just kick frees. But they’re important too.”
After Ballymun won the club championship, they rolled through Leinster with Rock kicking everything in sight. He top-scored in every game all the way to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day, only for Ballymun to be chinned by St Brigid’s in one of the great club finals.
It coincided with Jim Gavin’s first campaign as Dublin boss, the problem being it didn’t leave Rock with much time to impress. Famously, what little time he had he used to beat Tyrone in that year’s league final. With Tyrone a point up and the clock running dead, he kicked two towering points to carry the day.
“That was big in terms of confidence because I was after having a lot of setbacks. You doubt yourself a lot, you have all that time to wonder if you’re really up to it. So to get the chance and then come on and take it was a big deal for me. It told me that I wasn’t out of place.”
Did it feel at the time like they had to go over or you wouldn’t have made the championship panel?
“Absolutely, yeah. You were hoping for a Roy of the Rovers sort of thing. I would back myself anyway so once I was in scoring positions, I wanted to get on the ball and try and take my chances. But I knew it had to happen that day or it might be another summer gone.”
Those two points established a theme for the summer. He didn’t start a game on the way to Dublin’s All-Ireland but he did come off the bench to kick two points in every round bar the final. That knee surgery over the winter kept him out of the 2014 league but come the summer, Gavin hadn’t forgotten him.
Three points off the bench against Laois bought him a start against Wexford in the Leinster semi-final. But he had a nightmare – or what passes for a nightmare in the fog of a 16-point victory. Though he kicked four frees, he was the first forward to be substituted. The next day, all anyone wanted to talk about was the 1-5 his replacement Cormac Costello had scored off the bench.
“I learned a lot that day. I was kicking the frees well enough but I just didn’t play well. It was my first championship start and I think I probably thought about it too much. I was trying too many things and I was in too much of a hurry. I’m way more mature now than I was then. I’m just really relaxed about playing.”
And so that’s what he’s doing. Playing for Dublin, finally. Gavin’s attack will be its usual nest of vipers come the summer and if we take it that the names Flynn, Connolly and Brogan are more or less etched in stone, that means Rock is contending with anything up to 10 others for the remaining three spots. He’d fret about it if he didn’t know where fretting got him in the past.
“I don’t really put too much pressure on myself. I’m just delighted to be playing football at this time of year because I’ve never done it before. I’ve never been in the team for the first game of the league. I’ve never played a full round of games in the O’Byrne Cup for Dublin – I always played for DCU. So I’m mostly just enjoying being able to go out and play. I’m very comfortable out there. Everything is going well – I’m moving well, I’m kicking well, I’m fit and injury-free, so it’s a good time.
“I’m pretty laid back. Maybe too laid back at times. I do the right things, I take care of myself and I do all the prep work. But I don’t worry too much. I’ve matured a lot because there have been a lot of setbacks and they’re for nothing if you don’t mature along the way. I certainly would have put myself under a lot of pressure prior to all the setbacks. So now I want to enjoy it.”
About time, too.(IrishTimes.com)