Joe Joyce’s lips were amusingly sealed when asked about whether a blind eye was turned to Bristol fans invidiously caught between a rock and a hard place a few weeks ago. Chucking-out time in the city’s pubs was 10pm under Covid-19 restrictions, but the Bears’ gripping Challenge Cup semi-final at Ashton Gate had just lurched into extra-time.
The 80-minute stalemate meant that supporters who decided to roar on their team from their favourite watering holes now needed lock-in favours from their landlords or else miss the climax to the game against Bordeaux.
What transpired? The Bristol forward won’t say. “That would be grassing and that’s one thing you don’t want in rugby, to be known as a grass,” he heartily laughed in response to the query from The XV.
“Most people I know got to watch it. It was a weird feeling. I was panicking a bit because if it stayed the same it would have been a penalty shoot-out and I’d been practising my kicking during the week, let me tell you that.”
Not since John Eales was knocking them over for fun for Australia all those years ago would there perhaps have been so much focus on a second row putting boot to ball off the tee. As it turned out, Joyce’s footwork wasn’t needed.
Bristol gained the decisive extra-time edge on their French visitors and their reward is a shot at European glory, a tussle in Provence tomorrow night against the rugby aristocrats of Toulon.
It’s a showpiece that’s not without further how-do-we-watch complications. At the top of the year, Joyce’s parents ponied up on a trip for two to Marseille, the city where the final was originally set to be held.
Then came Covid and rather than a breezy knees-up at the futuristic Velodrome in front of a boisterous attendance, the showpiece their son will now feature in is scheduled to be held 35 kilometres north in front of just 1,000 fans.
It sucks, especially when you factor in the distance (and the many years) travelled by Joyce in making it big with his home-town club. Less than five miles separate Southmead from Ashton Gate, but the two Bristol city places might as well be located in different parts of the universe given their very different reputations.
Southmead doesn’t get much good press… but if I can inspire two, three kids to try to be a rugby player then that it is good enough for me.
Social disorder stalks the BS10 suburb of Southmead, behaviour very different from the sporting glory in BS3, where the 27,000-capacity stadium was regularly packed out by the Bears before the pandemic spread its deadly, gate-shutting, social-distancing consequences.
Proudly linking the postcodes, though, is Joyce, the local boy made good against the odds that suggest if you want to make it in professional rugby in England you must attend a fee-paying private school on your teenage way up the ladder.
“Southmead is where I’m from,” he said with pride, his accent as distinctly Bristolian as a fine local cider. “It doesn’t get much good press. It’s a council estate but, honestly, if I can inspire two, three kids to try to be a rugby player then that is good enough for me. I just want to show the Southmead boys there is a pathway to professional rugby.
“It’s just a standard council estate area in England. Like most places in the world, there is good and bad everywhere. There are a lot of good people in Southmead and the area moulded me as the sort of person that I am today. I just want to make sure I keep doing well and then Southmead is brought up in a good light.”
It’s not just Southmead, though. There must be something special in the city’s council-estate water. Aside from Joyce rising to prominence, Ellis Genge made the jump, going from Knowle West to England via Leicester, while Mitch Eadie also made waves, his journey taking him from Kingswood to a three-year stint at Northampton and now back again to Bristol.
“Gengey, me, Mitch, we are all mad Bristol fans but went to footballing schools and were from council estates,” said Joyce. “Most academies don’t take anybody on like us but we all came through together and had a real sense of pride and togetherness and wanting to do it together.
“I know Gengey is not at Bristol now but when he is representing England and Leicester he is representing the Bristolian, he is representing people from Knowle West. You will not meet a prouder Bristolian than Ellis Genge but sport and rugby take you to other places. But, yes, we are all proud of what we are doing for our areas.
“To be honest, I really do like football more. I just wasn’t good enough. As a kid, my dad got me into rugby, football and cricket. I played all of it and all of a sudden I was playing rugby in Clifton, which is a very upper-class area, and I played football for Southmead and for the county. I played cricket for eight years.
“I was terrible at cricket but I got to mix with all types of kids and all types of sports and I never had any time to get up to no good because I was always doing something, always playing. I’m a big football fan, Bristol City and Arsenal, but I found that my personality was more of a rugby man. I was suited to rugby, and I just happened to be better at it than football as well.”
Not for nothing then is the 6ft 6in, 19st lock known as the ‘King of Southmead’. Only the other week, the 26-year-old popped up at the local fire station for the unveiling of a defibrillator on the front wall. “I just feel blessed, to be honest. People go around the world to play rugby and I have got this on my doorstep in my home town so I feel very lucky,” he said.
I was players’ player of the year, that’s probably my proudest moment so far… knowing that was voted for by team-mates, I was fighting back the tears.
There was a time, though, when Joyce fretted about his status. Involved since making a British & Irish Cup debut in 2013-14, he received shock therapy when Pat Lam arrived to remedy 2017 Premiership relegation.
“I remember in an interview he mentioned things like bringing through local talent and straight away I thought that’s what I wanted to hear. Then at the same time, he brought in four second rows and I was out of contract.,” said Joyce.
“Pat is all about systems. He’s very structured compared to all the different coaches we had and I struggled to begin with. But it’s all about taking your chance. About four games into the Championship season I got my first start, got man of the match and played more games than anyone that year.
“But if I didn’t play well in that game it could have been the end of my Bristol career. It’s fine margins but since then he has kept the faith. I couldn’t be more grateful to him and I’m really keen to pay him back.
“I was players’ player of the year in Pat’s first year. That’s probably my proudest moment so far, especially as we had All Blacks in our team. There is still only one player of the year and knowing that was voted by team-mates, I was fighting back the tears.
“It rekindled my Bristol career, but there are demands every year… every year he is bringing in better and better players, so I have to keep improving or else I know I will be gone. He has expanded the way I think about the game, my skill-set.
“When he first came I was still doing English rugby, up the jumper, worrying about first phase, second phase. Now I go out and know what I’m doing fourth, fifth, sixth phase and I’m making more passes than I have done in my life. He has just expanded everything that I do.”
Joyce reached his ton last month, his centurion-appearance milestone another reason for his hard-man exterior to melt following a warm Bristol embrace.
“Callum Sheedy and a few boys put a video up in the meeting for me. My family were in the video, best friends, best team-mates congratulating me, so that was special,” he said. “Then after the game, I was presented with a jersey they had done up which was class. I can’t thank them enough.”
I pinched myself when I came back for the restart and we had people like Semi Radradra in the changing room. It’s crazy.
With the Bears now essentially a United Nations of Rugby ensemble, Joyce’s local intel is of immense value. Need a reliable mechanic? Just ask Joe. Same again for recommended restaurants and all the other titbits you won’t find in a tourist guide book about the city straddling the River Avon.
A son of Irish parents, Bristol-born Joyce is also to the fore teaching the imports the all-important lyrics to the Wurzels’ ‘Blackbird’ song, the classic belted out in the Bristol dressing room after a victory.
“That’s the only thing that is tough about bringing people in from around the world,” he said. “Four years ago it was easy, but now we’re trying to get Fijians, Samoans to learn the ‘Blackbird’. They’re getting there. It also helps when you’re winning a lot of games, they get a lot of practise. I think for the final, if we win everyone will be fluent, so no worries.’
“I pinched myself when I came back for the restart and we had people like Semi Radradra in the changing room. It’s crazy. Then you get other players of the calibre of Ben Earl and Max Malins, two posh boys but they are fitting in very well as well. We did the best recruitment out of all the teams and it’s a brilliant mix of people from all over the world.”
A trophy six days after their Premiership semi-final loss to Wasps would endorse the value of that blend. “It would be massive to win. Bristol is a football town but rugby has always got huge support. Even in the dark days of the Championship, we had that. If we’d been able to have in supporters for the Bordeaux and Dragons games, there would have been 25,000 there.
“If it wasn’t ‘no fans’ at the final, how many supporters would we have had? My parents had already gambled eight months ago on flights to Marseille. They booked it. There are so many little things like that.
“If we win, it would mean so much for the city and for me. It would be in my top three moments. The only thing that would beat that was when Bristol City beat Manchester United and Bristol Rovers got relegated to non-League. There is nothing else I can think of that can top that.”
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