‘King of Southmead’ Joe Joyce: How a council estate upbringing helped me become a Bristol Bears star

Bristol Bears‘ Joe Joyce spoke to Neil Maggs on his upbringing and why he wants more people from similar backgrounds to make it as part of BristolWorld series Legends of Bristol

Southmead born-and-raised Joe Joyce feels that his upbringing and schooling, despite being a rarity in the game, can give you the necessary resilience required to be a success.

He wants more young people from similar areas make it, with a pipeline of talent from council estates in the city and beyond.

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Dubbed ‘The King of Southmead’, Bristol Bears lock forward Joe Joyce is the latest guest to be interviewed by journalist Neil Maggs for the Legends of Bristol series.

Maggs visited Southmead to meet the 28-year-old, who grew up on the estate in the north of the city. The pair met at the Ranch, the Adventure playground, that his cousin Will Dornay is manager of.

Joyce is one of the club’s longest serving players having graduated through the club’s Academy to become a mainstay of the senior squad. He has now made more than 100 appearances, playing a starring role in the European Challenge Cup winning side of 2020.

Last night (May 20), he starred in Bristol Bears’ final game of the season - a six-try win over Exeter watched by almost 20,000 people at Ashton Gate.

Neil Maggs spoke to Bristol Rugby star Joe Joyce as part of Legends of Bristol series

His route into the game was not a conventional one though, attending St Bedes Catholic School in Lawrence Weston, he played football far more, and found it hard to access regular rugby.

He said: “I started off at Clifton Rugby Club, because Southmead had no juniors at the time. And I ended up leaving and going to St Marys [St Mary’s Old Boys Rugby Club] because I was the only kid at Clifton that didn’t go to a private school.

“There were three weeks in a row when our games were called off, and instead of coming in and training, they didn’t because they said they all do enough training at school - at Bristol Grammar, Colston, whatever they are doing there. But at St Bedes we had no training whatsoever,” he added.

Had his parents not encouraged this move to play more, there is the likelihood Joyce may not have made it as a professional player.

According to the Rugby Football Union, of the 3,500 state schools in the country, only 1,500 play competitive rugby. Yet only 6% of the population attend fee-paying schools, and 61% of all English rugby professionals went to public school, which is the highest of any sport.

Traditionally this has been reflected in the city too, particularly at Colston’s School, which has had over 30 professional players in recent years, including internationals such as Olly Barkley, Tom Varndell and Lee Mears.

Improvements in the game are happening though, with 10 of the 36 man current England Six nations squad attending state school, one of the highest in recent years. And with current England props Ellis Genge, who grew up in Knowle West returning, and Kyle Sinckler from a South London estate, at the Bears, things are changing.

Joe Joyce wants to inspire more young people from across the city, including areas like Southmead, to get into rugby

Joyce feels this is building on the foundations of something he has always felt positive about at the club.

He said: “That’s why I love Bristol so much. In my academy you had me in there from Southmead, you had Gengey from Knowle West, you had Mitch Eadie from Kingswood, so it was a good mix. And I think Bristol is leading the way in things like that now.

“And in this area now we’ve got Diego Bailey too, and young players from everywhere.”

Joyce feels growing up where he did and attending a state school could in some ways be an advantage. He said: “It might be a bit tougher, but I look on the positive, as that stuff probably makes you more resilient.

“I have seen some people some in a professional environment that have never had setbacks before and aren’t prepared when they get one. I have seen some who don’t know how to handle it, but people from around here are used to setbacks and working for everything you get.

“So in pressure games, you probably don’t feel the pressure as much because you felt it in real life,” he added.

Now living in Emersons Green, the lock forward remains fiercely proud of his Southmead roots, where most of his family still live.

His cousin, Will, has seen the impact this has had first hand.

He said: “It’s not often you see people from this area make it, particularly in type of sport like rugby. But now they come here and say they want to be Joe Joyce. The other day they were all tearing up the mud and playing rugby. Whereas before it was all football.”