Growing up, there was only one position that interested Christopher Joyce. He was either going to be the next Seán Óg Ó hAilpín or the next John Gardiner. End of.
Joyce, mind you, wasn’t alone in harboring ambitions of establishing himself in a future Cork half-back line. There was a whole generation of Na Piarsaigh hurlers who wanted to make a name for themselves at wing-back stemming from the exploits of their club’s two favourite sons.
He was seven years young when Seán Óg wore the number seven shirt in the 1999 All-Ireland final win, 12 when the Na Piarsaigh pair flanked Ronan Curran during the 2004 triumph over Kilkenny. Same again the following September.
The year after, he was part of a Na Piarsaigh half-back line which swept to All-Ireland Féile glory. Moreover, that year’s Cork U14 half-back line was an all Na Piarsaigh affair — Joyce, Keith Buckley, and Adam Dennehy. The Ó hAilpín and Gardiner effect was beginning to bear fruit.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy favoured him at centre-back when he broke into the Cork team, as did Kieran Kingston last year, but number five is where he’s currently stationed and it is at right half-back where the 25-year old is most comfortable.
“Seán Óg and John were everybody’s heroes growing up. We went to the Cork games and our two clubmen would be wing-back. They were the ones we were watching. You’d have around 100 wing-backs running around Piarsaigh, all different ages, and they trying to get into the senior panel,” says Joyce.
“That everyone was inspired by Seán Óg and John nearly became a problem because every player growing up in Na Piarsaigh, besides this year’s minors, have been defenders. That half-back line the year we won Féile, we were the Cork half-back line at U14, U15 and U16. The year before I played Cork minor, 2009, you had Pa O’Rourke, another Na Piarsaigh man, who was in the half-back line for the Cork minors.”
Joyce was among the 8,142 who attended Monday’s Munster Minor Hurling Championship replay between Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Rinn. That none of the three Na Piarsaigh boys on the starting team — Daire Connery, Craig Hanafin, and Evan Sheehan — held down defensive positions was a welcome break from years past. Joyce was part of the 2010 minor class which fell at the semi-final hurdle following a replay with Waterford. He joined the senior set-up that winter and there is a sense time has been lost during the subsequent six years, given Cork’s inconsistency. Aside from the 2014 Munster title, championship silverware has been thin on the ground.
“You can’t believe how quick it goes. Every year you don’t win something is a waste, especially for all the training you are doing. It is massive dedication. Now, we love doing it, but we want to win. We want to be consistent and play in the big games.
“Going into the championship this year, we firmly believed we could do something. I don’t think many other people did but it was up to us to keep the outside out and just stick with the camp and train hard. That is what we have done.”
The Cork defender expects tomorrow’s opponents will attempt to draw Mark Ellis away from his centre-back position, such was the Millstreet man’s commanding presence during the wins over Tipperary and Waterford. Joyce doesn’t see Kieran Kingston’s side being dictated to. That day of being distracted by what the opposition does is gone.
“From day one, we set a game-plan. We’re trying to play our game. In the past, we would have changed game plans for different teams. We are solely focused on ourselves. That is the best thing possible for us and for Cork hurling. We are just trying to get belief in our game-plan and after two wins, you do start to get a bit of belief.
“Our belief to give that 20- or 30-yard pass has improved. In the past, we would have just milled it down the pitch. That’s the easy option. To have the confidence to give that shorter pass, that’s the way we have trained.”
Having established himself as a permanent fixture on the Cork team, it is now time to start making inroads on the three and five Munster hurling medals pocketed by Gardiner and Ó hAilpín respectively.
“You don’t want to be in the qualifiers.
“As a Cork hurler, you want to be playing in a Munster final. It is what I watched, growing up.”
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