'I suppose for years I was making up the numbers, but you never stop'
On a road less travelled, one that was dimly lit for long stretches, Kieran Joyce has often hankered for company or even assurance that he was progressing. Signs were few and far between on his journey towards earning his stripes as a Kilkenny hurler in a golden era for the county.
It was never going to be straightforward, not with the route Joyce took. He tried various avenues and failed, but he never stopped coming back. "There were twists and turns along the way, that's for sure," Joyce recalls now. "But that's no bad thing either."
It all began in County Laois, where Joyce lived for the first seven years of his life, with his parents commuting from work there back to the family home in Inistioge on the River Nore in south Kilkenny.
This giant of a man didn't even hold a hurley in earnest until he was 12. How many Kilkenny hurlers of any vintage could say that and still reach the top? He even dabbled in football for the county before finally forging a way into their hurling hearts.
As he hit his mid-20s it looked like the end of the trail. An All-Ireland minor finalist in 2004, he won All-Ireland under 21 medals in 2006 and 2008. But in Kilkenny those badges of honour count for little. On a team where Richie Hogan was the general, Joyce was a mere foot-soldier.
This spell co-incided with a stint with the intermediates in 2006, when his last-minute mistake in the final against Cork cost them an All-Ireland title. Joyce was said to be cumbersome in possession and went to strike a ball standing still. The Cork attack dispossessed him and struck for a winning goal. Few saw a way back for Joyce that afternoon in Fraher Field.
He took that setback as another challenge and hit the gym with relentless determination, hoping to cope with the power and attrition that define Brian Cody's training sessions if the call came. Two years on, he bounced back with many of that same intermediate team as they won their first All-Ireland since 1973. The success put him back on the map. So too did his time at University of Limerick. There he was forced to change his outlook on hurling in an attempt to make a UL team packed with mobile forwards. It was a style alien to Joyce but he gradually grasped it to win a Fitzgibbon Cup. That finally handed him an audition with Cody.
"Kieran was a very quiet, unassuming chap but he was one of the most driven lads I ever saw," says Ger Cunningham, his manager at UL. "He repeated a semester because he put hurling before college. But he was so far down the pecking order in Kilkenny when he arrived. . . I'll be honest - none of us ever thought he'd make where he is now. This may seem strange, but Kilkenny lads come to UL and they struggle to adapt to our ways. There are so many Tipp, Clare and Limerick lads who play a totally different brand of hurling. The Kilkenny lads find it hard and Joycey struggled too."
At the start of the 2011 season, Joyce was not front and centre in the thinking in UL but by the end of it they were Fitzgibbon champions and Joyce their captain. He had realised he couldn't continue hitting 80-yard clearances into a full-forward line where the players were not comfortable winning their own ball. He changed his ways.
"Eventually we had to make him captain," Cunningham recalls. "Purely for his hard work - he drove everyone on with his work ethic. At one stage he was doing too much, especially in the gym, and it was affecting his hurling. He was missing college because he was going to the gym in the mornings. He got too big. But he and David Burke from Galway made it the easiest management job I ever had. They took it on and did all the talking. Players were drawn to Joycey like a magnet."
Last year, his mental strength was evident again. Having finally made his Kilkenny championship debut in 2012 against Dublin, he set about nailing a permanent spot in the first 15, but all the prime spots were occupied - by some of the great names of hurling. It was a waiting game.
He came on early as they hammered Offaly, started the drawn game against Galway but was dropped for the replay after they conceded five goals. Once again his journey had hit rocky terrain.
"Galway broke our half-back line that day," Joyce remembers. "The goals came from our department and it's the last thing you want. And sure we had plenty of players waiting to come in. So Joey (Holden) came in there and played brilliantly all year. I was in the stands watching as we reached the All-Ireland final."
That match was drawn, and ahead of the replay, the Cats regrouped at Nowlan Park and Cody set the tone by promising there would be changes. Joyce felt invigorated again.
"It was a clean slate and Brian was kind of telling you that there was a spot on the starting 15. But all that went on training, so I really had to up it. I did that. When you're on the bench it hurts. You doubt yourself at the start but it doesn't last long. There are plenty of guys there that can't get in so you can't feel sorry for yourself, you have to get over it. I just put the head down."
Soon Joyce got a few outings on the A team at training, seized the opportunity and got back in for the replay where he squared up to 'Bonner' Maher and quietened him. He was voted man of the match. Ten years into his journey, Joyce had finally arrived. "Very few could do what he did," Cunningham notes. "Very few would have the mental strength to constantly come back."
Last year also saw Rower-Inistioge win the All-Ireland intermediate title. They hadn't featured much since Eddie Keher's time but Joyce and his brothers dragged them up from junior status. It was another landmark. Today he goes hunting his eighth All-Ireland medal across all grades - some going for a guy who was veering towards journeyman territory. "I suppose for years there I was making up the numbers in Nowlan Park when there were injuries in the squad," he admits. "But you never stop. You can't."
Although his early appearances were sporadic, management always recognised his healthy work-rate, attitude and an ability to hit the level of their sessions quickly. They admired his resilience.
"I had a lot of success at underage but was in the stands for years looking at a senior team that contained JJ (Delaney), Jackie (Tyrrell), Tommy (Walsh), 'Hogie' (Brian Hogan) and John Tennyson. The bench was so strong that you were wondering if you would even make that. How would I get into it? And no matter how much success you had at underage, those lads had the same success. And more," he says.
"It was a great time for Kilkenny. But there were times when you would be thinking 'will I ever make the cut?' Thankfully, Brian has been true to form. If you play well in club matches, and I was performing well, you will get a look-in. When you get a chance, you have to take it."
For all the meandering and the setbacks he endured, there was never a question of calling it a day. "No, I always wanted it, always knew that I wanted to play for Kilkenny, always knew that I wanted to win All-Irelands. That was my thing," he explains.
He laughs fondly at the memory of being part of a Kilkenny side that beat Louth in a minor football championship match, less so at the recollection of the spell when his gym work went over the top. Hanging around with rugby players at UL and following their programmes set him off course and left him more like a lock forward than a half-back.
Who cried stop? "The mother told me," Joyce smiles. "She said 'you have shoulders on you like a heifer or a bullock!'. She put me up on the weighing scales once or twice too."
Did you put on much weight? "Ah, I did yeah."
All muscle? "Yeah," he laughs again, "a good bit of muscle."
You're 14 stone 2lbs now? "Well I'd say I went past 15. I thought bigger, stronger and more powerful was best but obviously the way the game has gone now it's about speed and explosiveness."
Nowadays he only hits the gym under strict supervision and says it's as clear as day if someone is overdoing the weights. "It would be seen straight away - lads would be lethargic in their movement and wouldn't be as explosive in their sprinting, if they were chasing for a ball."
Ironically, his old bulk would have helped him withstand the truck-like collision he had with Johnny Glynn in the sixth minute of the Leinster final when they clashed for a ball.
"He's a big man, isn't he?" Joyce groans. "A strong man. I didn't see it coming at all. I think he hit me here (gestures to chest), I was lucky enough he didn't hit me on the collarbone. I was completely winded at the time. I was seeing a few stars."
Concussion was a concern and Dr Tadhg Crowley put him through the usual protocols. "I was a bit rattled by it. Look, I'll try to line him up again and see what happens," he jokes.
He's quizzed on today's game and mentions that unlike his time at UL he can either offload quickly or send the ball into the clouds, safe in the knowledge that the Kilkenny forwards can win their own ball. With either TJ Reid or Walter Walsh expected to go onto John Hanbury this afternoon, Kilkenny will seek the direct route.
"It's a key thing for any forward that's going to play with Kilkenny. They're going to have to win the 50-50 balls, and TJ is obviously a gifted player. Richie Hogan, for his size as well, is so strong in the air and that's a huge attribute. If you're under pressure and you're over your shoulder you can just let the ball up. I know for other teams they won't do that because they're thinking, 'what if I lose possession?'. It does give an added benefit to our backs."
Ball-winners in attack mean that defenders have the luxury of compressing space in their own half and going long from there.
"That allows you to draw back," he agrees. "You always have the full-back line shouting to cover because the worst thing is if you see 40 yards of space in front of you. You have the likes of Shane O'Donnell flying around and it's impossible to mark. No matter how good you are, you can't anticipate it unless you're hanging out of him, which you're not going to be doing either. Any forward would love 30 or 40 yards either side of them. For any back, it's a nightmare. The more contracted you play the better."
But Galway will also drop a lot deeper this afternoon so Kilkenny will have to counteract that too. Cody, however, always gets his match-ups right.
"An All-Ireland final can take on a life of its own as well and the big thing is to not get lost in the occasion," Joyce stresses. "Thankfully, I have a bit of experience there and know what's ahead of me. The crowd, the occasion, and everything. If a mistake happens, it happens. It's up to the character of the man to back himself to go for it again."
He will have no problem on that front. "Look, when the chance comes, you really have to take it. I always feel that if you trust yourself, put in as much work as you can and just go for it, there won't be regrets. But if you hold back at all, it will be seen."
He has never held back, nor feared for what lay ahead. For Kieran Joyce, the journey continues.
Sunday Indo Sport