Christopher Joyce has taken wing for Cork
By John Harrington
Four days out from a Munster Final, and Christopher Joyce cut a relaxed figure when he chatted to the assembled media in the Rochestown Park Hotel last Wednesday evening.
The hype building in the city ahead of the showdown with Clare clearly hasn’t affected him, and is unlikely to do so.
He admits his father “loves all of this”, but Joyce himself won’t be reading anything that’s written about this interview between now and the match.
But just because he’s insulating himself from the hype doesn’t mean he’s in any way overawed by the upcoming occasion. He carries himself with the typical sang froid of a Cork hurler going into battle on a big day.
Cork hurlers grow up expecting to play in these sorts of matches, so when they come around it’s no big deal regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve been in one.
An easy self-confidence has always been the default setting of a Cork hurler, and Joyce is no different to any other in that regard.
“At the end of the day, you do so much training during the year, you build confidence in yourself and the team builds confidence in itself and going into every championship, you genuinely feel that you can win,” he says.
“I don’t believe any team goes into any championship game, thinking we are in trouble here.
“You believe in the team, believe in the training and what you have done. Going into the Tipp game, we were confident we were going up there to win the game and I 100 per cent believed that.
“It was the same with Waterford. You have to be confident. And as you said, as a Cork hurler, you want to be playing in a Munster final. It is where you want to be. It is what I watched, growing up.”
Joyce appreciates what it means to hurl in matches of this magnitude all the more after having a year of inter-county hurling stolen from him in 2015 by a ruptured cruciate ligament.
Now I am feeling fine, I am feeling fresh
He returned to the team last year but admits he only now feels like he’s getting back to his very best form.
“You know when I done my knee, I used to go training, and you know, it is not the same,” he says. “You want to be part of it, even if you are not playing but training, you are still training.
“But when you are on the sideline, it is not the same. So when I came back last year, I put in a ferocious amount of work, probably over-worked to be honest with you. I think I tired myself out before the end of the year.
“I put in a solid eight months work, six days a week, before the season started and then I put in a full pre-season, full national league and I burnt myself out. I tired myself out but it was just about getting myself right. And I got myself right last year and this year was just about going again.
“But now I am feeling fine, I am feeling fresh.”
It helps too that he’s been given a run in his preferred position of wing-back.
He’s had stints at centre-back and full-back in the past, but on the win is always where he’s felt much more comfortable.
“Growing up, I was always wing-back. I was never centre-back. I went at centre-back once and it stuck from there. I went in and out of there.
“Once I'm in the half-back line, I'm confident in myself. At the end of the day, I want to play.
“You are playing wing-back and you know exactly what that role is. You've more confidence in it. It's good to have that consistency of playing in the same position.”
Joyce grew up watching his fellow Na Piarsaigh club-men Sean Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner star in the wing-back positions on the great Cork team that won back to back All-Irelands in 2004/2005.
So when he dreamed of hurling himself on the big stage it was always on the right or left flank of the Cork defence.
“Exactly, Sean Óg and John. That's actually been a problem with Piarsaigh. Every player growing up, besides this year's minors, have been defenders.
“And that is because they were watching the boys growing up. It is great to see the lads on the minor team this year are forwards. Sean Óg and John were everybody's heroes growing up.
“When I was U14, we won the Féile All-Ireland. Our whole half-back line played on the Cork team at U14, U15 and U16. We were there at minor too. Pa O'Rourke, the year before us, was centre-back for the Cork minors.
You had Eoin Moynihan. Everyone wanted to be a defender. My half-back line was Keith Buckley and Adam Dennehy.
“We’d go to the Cork games and our two clubmen would be wing-back. They were the ones we were watching. You have around 100 wing-backs running around Piarsaigh, all different ages, and they trying to get into the senior panel.”
Cork’s defence was viewed as something of a soft touch for a number of years but they’ve been a highly impressive unit in 2017.
It helps that they’re now given more protection by a system of play that sees Cork get more numbers behind the ball when the opposition has possession than they traditionally would have had in the past.
They’ve condensing their own half and middle third of the field with bodies and then when they force a turnover they counter-attack like a coiled spring. So far it’s a tactical ploy that’s been hugely effective.
“From day one, we set a game-plan,” says Joyce. “In the past, we would have changed game plans for different teams. Since the Munster league, we've tried to stick to our system.
“The more you play it, the more confident you get. I think every player knows what their role is in any individual position. It just gives you belief going into that position you know what you are expected to do.”
“We are just trying to put a bit of consistency into the performance. We're trying to play our game, whereas, in the past, we would have focused on other 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 think our hurling, too, has improved this year. Our belief to give that 20 or 30-yard pass, 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. I don't think any player is going to get given out to this year for making a mistake if they are trying to do the right thing.”
The ultimate test of Cork’s new system will come against Clare this Sunday.
When you look at both teams there are some obvious similarities to be drawn in terms of how they like to play the game.
They both like to drag the opposition half-back line out of position and then exploit the space left with the speed, skill, and finishing power of their inside-forwards. Sunday’s game could well be a contest defined by who blinks first.
“That’s it, like,” says Joyce. “Who is going to give first, do their half-back line give, do we give? That’s it. That is the way it is.
“They have been so confident playing that game-plan and they have done it so often, that they won’t budge, they will stick to their game-plan. And it is up to us can we stick to ours, do we have confidence to stick to ours, if things are going well for them.
“They are favourites, and we are up against it. We just need to bring a performance on Sunday that can match their work-rate and counter-act their game-plan.”