WHEN Chris Joyce was growing up on the northside there was no position he wanted to play more than wing-back.
As a Na Piarsaigh tyro that was more than understandable. He was an impressionable 12-year-old in 2004 when Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner were the best in the business on the flanks, winning an All-Ireland and a senior county that season. A year later the Rebels retained Liam McCarthy with Seán Óg as captain, and in ’06 when Cork pursued three in a row, Joyce was a wing-back in Na Piarsaigh’s U14 crop that captured the Féile.
“Seán Óg and John. That's 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. Seán Óg and John were everybody's heroes growing up.”
The exceptions this year that Joyce refers to are Na Piarsaigh trio Evan Sheehan and Craig Hanifin, both forwards, and Dáire Connery, a dynamic scoring midfielder, who have been top-class for the Cork minors who also face Clare in tomorrow’s Munster final.
“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.”
For Joyce it was a case of watching and learning from the best, and while Gardiner is now based in the States, Seán Óg is his coach with a Na Piarsaigh team that has looked pretty dangerous in the Cork SHC to date.
“We went 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.
“Growing up, I was always wing-back. I was never centre-back (where he’s played on occasion for Cork, as well as runs at midfield, full-back and in the corner). 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.”
It’s that consistency Cork have tried to bring to the table this summer above all else. No one has ever doubted the Rebels’ raw materials, even if underage success has been lacking.
“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.”
Cork, perhaps with the injection of youth, have appeared fitter and faster than in 2015 and 2016, but Joyce feels their touch and tactical approach has improved too.
“Our hurling 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.”
Remarkably this is Joyce’s seventh year in the panel, even if 2015 was ruined by a cruciate injury. For the first time there is genuine stability in the defence, which have stayed the same since the start of the league when Killian Burke and David Griffin filled in for the injured Damian Cahalane and Stephen McDonnell.
“From day one, we set a game-plan. 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.”