Kilkenny's Kieran Joyce earns stripes in the end after absorbing harsh lessons
Kieran Joyce has seized his chance to become a mainstay of the Kilkenny backline, writes Dermot Crowe
In August 2006, eight days before Kilkenny's regime-changing win over Cork in the All-Ireland senior hurling final, the intermediate championship concluded before a modest gathering in Dungarvan. With play in injury-time, and Kilkenny defending a goal lead over Cork, a 19-year-old Kieran Joyce had the ball in hand. What happened next is seared in the memory of one of Joyce's earliest mentors in The Rower-Inistioge, Dermot Kavanagh.
Having won possession, Joyce moved forward, ran into traffic and threw the ball up to strike. A Cork player reacted a fraction quicker, swiping the ball to the net, and Kilkenny lost after extra-time. Any match has multiple factors influencing its outcome but on that day all variables tended to be distilled into that mortifying moment when Joyce tossed the ball to strike and never made contact.
Joyce was an All-Ireland minor finalist with Kilkenny two years earlier and won All-Ireland medals at under 21 level in 2006 and '08. Richie and Paddy Hogan were stand-out players on those teams and he was a low-key hurler, not one that looked a sure bet to make the transition to the seniors.
He hurled for the intermediates again in 2008 when they won their first All-Ireland since 1973 but getting into a Kilkenny senior team required something exceptional. "I thought the boat had sailed that day in Dungarvan," admits Kavanagh. "He looked pedestrian. He was getting blocked down. I thought he would never appear again. Typically he put his mind down to it and got going again."
If Kavanagh sees that as a career low, the counterpoint came at the end of Joyce's years striving to win a Fitzgibbon Cup, finally achieved with UL in early 2011. Two years earlier they were well beaten in the final by UCC. The previous year they lost the semi-final to WIT.
In 2011, he was in his last year, and captain, and they celebrated a memorable win over LIT. Joyce's commanding performances in a half-back line also containing Brendan Bugler and PJ Delaney of Johnstown bolstered his profile. "Brian Cody has great appreciation for players who hurl for their colleges through the winter, living away from home and not having the usual comforts," says Kavanagh.
"I remember that awful bad Christmas we had, he (Joyce) crashed the car going to training in Limerick one evening. His father wasn't happy with him going, there was a lot of snow on the roads, but no way would he not go. There were lads living in Limerick I'm sure who found it hard to go training in that weather. Kieran would never take the soft option."
But making the Kilkenny senior side took time. He was 25 when he had his first senior championship start, against Limerick in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-finals. Cha Fitzpatrick and John Dalton were only a year older when they both retired. Injury to Brian Hogan gave Joyce his chance at centre-back and he retained a starting place for the rest of the championship, even when Hogan was restored to the team.
In the semi-final against Tipperary he made a vital one-handed ground clearance after six minutes when Kilkenny's goal was under threat and David Herity badly exposed, and in the final against Galway over two days he was a commanding and strident figure. From the time he stepped on to the field against Limerick he looked ready-made; powerful, direct, a personality capable, through simple and uncompromising acts of defiance, of rousing a team and a crowd.
"He is a great bit of stuff," says Kavanagh, who has known him since around the age of 10. "The one thing I will say about him is that he is very confident but not arrogant. His first match was when Brian Hogan got injured against Limerick and there would have been a view that he was a stopgap. But he kept his place and he had a great All-Ireland (final). He was always quietly determined that if the nod came he was not going to be found wanting. He's confident in his ability but not showy, there is none of this tugging of the crest."
Last year Joyce was one of a few players to lose their place after Kilkenny conceded three late goals, and five in all, to Galway in the Leinster semi-final, which ended in a draw. "It was one of those days when Galway played off the shoulder," says Kavanagh. "He wasn't good. No matter what he did, it didn't seem to work."
With no appearance in the replay, Joyce's prospects of winning back his place rested on injuries or him making a sufficiently strong impression in training. He had no club hurling to fall back on at that time of year. His recall and subsequent impact is further validation of the trust placed by Cody and his management team in what they see behind closed doors.
Joyce replaced Brian Hogan for the All-Ireland final replay after Kilkenny had conceded 1-24 from play in the first game. Joyce is said to have considered his prospects of selection high for the drawn match and felt he might have got in had he the benefit of another week's preparation. Given Bonner Maher's influence, the signals were even more positive after the drawn match and it is believed he was told to be ready to play when training resumed. He proceeded to repay their faith in him with a man-of-the-match performance on Maher.
"When the seniors won the four-in-a-row there was very little room in the defence," says Kavanagh. "He was being brought in by Cody for two years before anyone knew who he was. Never togging out in matches, never appearing in match programmes. He got to know the lads; he's a quiet chap, good dry sense of humour I would say. I'd say he knew if the call came he would be ready. If the call came at nine in the morning to go to Ballinasloe he would be ready. He is relaxed and wry but ferociously determined."
Joyce has a younger brother, Darragh, on this year's Kilkenny minor team, his third year with the minors, having captained them to win the championship last year. Another brother, Conor, is also hurling with the local club who won the All-Ireland intermediate title in 2014. The three brothers are past pupils of Good Counsel in New Ross, with the majority of The Rower-Inistioge All-Ireland-winning squad educated there.
An arguable weakness of Joyce's is his tendency to head for enemy lines, ducking the head and charging into opponents when he has the ball. Before half-time in last year's All-Ireland final replay against Tipperary that cost him a free when he was adjudged to have fouled the ball. If the decision was harsh the point remains that he would be better served at times avoiding the risk and, like some of his colleagues, evade rather than engage and make his clearance. But that would reduce the body collisions and the brilliant spectacle of him and players like Maher going into physical combat, when they do.
Where the hell did they get this fella, people might have asked when Joyce was unleashed against Limerick three years ago. It was clear that day that he had the stuff of which championship players are made. At one stage in last year's final, with Kilkenny starting to slowly squeeze the life out of Tipperary, Joyce pulled one-handed overhead, the ball finding Cillian Buckley, who fed Colin Fennelly for an inspiring point. This was a far cry from Dungarvan. There's a lesson there for all.
Kieran Joyce Factfile
Club: The Rower-Inistioge
Education: Good Counsel, University of Limerick
Ideal position: Left half-back
Family interest: Younger brother and county minor hurler Darragh is subject of intense interest from AFL clubs. Kieran was also a highly regarded dual player at Good Counsel
Senior championship debut: Leinster semi-final 2012 (as sub) v Dublin
Honours: All-Ireland SHC medals 2011 (sub), 2012, 2014. Leinster MHC medal 2004. All-Ireland under 21 HC medals 2006, 2008. All-Ireland IHC medal 2008. All-Ireland IHC Club medal 2014. NHL medals 2013, 2014. Fitzgibbon Cup medal 2011
Career Peak: Man of the match performance in last year's All-Ireland SHC final replay
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