Most people who come from Bristol’s northern suburb of Southmead are football fans, but things are changing.
Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears – and in particular former Southmead resident, 27-year-old Joe Joyce – have been an inspiration to the next generation there.
Joyce’s passion for his roots is as infectious as it is clear. After all, he is not called ‘The King of Southmead’ for nothing.
Bristol Bears Joe Joyce helps boost rugby’s popularity in Soutmead
“I loved growing up in Southmead. I was so obsessed with all sports from a young age that I never had time to see the bad side everyone is talking about. It is the same as any municipal estate. There are good areas and bad areas and good people and less good people,” Joyce told Sportsmail.
“There is a strong community there and the love I feel from the area is amazing. I get a lot of messages from people saying they are proud of me.
“These are the things that keep me going and my biggest motivation is to see the young kids come out of Southmead.
The 27-year-old (top) admitted he even prefers football to rugby, but isn’t very good at it
“I went to see the playground reopening after it burned down a few years ago. I only saw children playing rugby. Usually it’s all football in Southmead, but things are changing and rugby is taken seriously there, which makes me very proud.
‘Even I like football more – I’m just not that good at it!’
The gigantic second row still has close ties to the area. His rugby journey began at St Bede’s Catholic School in Lawrence Weston and after stints at St Mary’s Old Boys Rugby Club and Filton College, he joined the Bristol Academy.
The second tier came to Bristol at age 14 when the Memorial Ground was the team’s home
When Joyce signed with the Bears at age 14, Bristol was a very different club to the Premiership outfit now run by billionaire owner Stephen Lansdown.
For starters, the Memorial Ground was the home of the team, not Ashton Gate as it is today.
“The club has come such a long way,” Joyce admitted. “When I came to the academy there were only four players and we showed up once a week to train.
“There was no branded gear, we did half an hour in the gym and then some skills. Other clubs had their academies in competitions, but there was no money for that in Bristol.’
Bristol’s rise has brought stars from all over the world to the West Country, but there will always be something special about a local kid who makes it.
“Because of my background, it is extremely important for me to play for Bristol,” said Joyce. “I’ve always made it clear that I want to be a man of one club. People tell me I say that, but I don’t care. My dream from an early age was to play for Bristol.
‘I spent my Saturdays at Ashton Gate watching Bristol City and then on Sundays I went to the Memorial Ground for rugby. I never thought I’d be playing Ashton Gate in a rugby shirt, but now that I’m doing it, I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Bristol is a very different club now since it’s run by billionaire owner Stephen Lansdown
Bristol made it to the Premiership play-offs last season and in 2020 Joyce started when Lam’s Bears won the European Challenge Cup with a win over Toulon.
Rugby director Lam has superstars Semi Radradra, Charles Piutau and Kyle Sinckler on his team. Sinckler’s compatriot Ellis Genge, a Bristolian like Joyce, will be competing next season. The presence of such star quality means Joyce rarely makes headlines, but he remains an extremely important figure.
He will captain Stade Francais tonight in the Heineken Champions Cup as Bristol finally kicks off their European campaign after losing their first two games to Covid.
Pat Lam’s side won the European Challenge Cup with victory over Toulon in 2020
It will also be Joyce’s 150th first-team appearance for his home club.
“Rugby is so ruthless. It’s a cutthroat business, meaning you can’t afford to think too much,” Joyce said. ‘But when I come home, I think what I’m doing is very special.
“I’m lucky because when I look around me, people from all over the world come to Bristol’s dressing room. It’s very special. I would never have met the people I’ve met if I hadn’t played rugby.
‘We have players from Fiji, Wellington School and Southmead! That’s what I love about the rugby environment: that people from all over the world can come together.’
Qualifying for both England and Ireland, Joyce is a regular at Bristol City matches, citing former Arsenal captain Tony Adams as a source of inspiration for his total dedication to the Gunners.
Joyce cites former Arsenal captain Tony Adams (left) as a source of inspiration for his dedication
Like Adams at Arsenal, Joyce plans to spend his entire career at Bristol.
“With all the superstars we have, I’m proud of my consistency,” said Joyce, whose time at Bristol nearly ended when Lam signed four second rows when he joined the club in 2017.
He then laughed: ‘Thank goodness the salary cap is coming down – they can’t get rid of me now. Every club needs a local volunteer.’