Most people who come from the northern Bristol suburb of Southmead are football fans — but things are changing.
Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears — and in particular, former Southmead resident, 27-year-old lock Joe Joyce — have been inspirational to the next generation there.
Joyce’s passion for his roots is as infectious as it is obvious. After all, he isn’t nicknamed ‘The King of Southmead’ for nothing.
Bristol Bears Joe Joyce is helping to boost the popularity over rugby in Soutmead
‘I loved growing up in Southmead. I was so obsessed with all sports from a young age, I never had time to see the bad side everyone talks about. It’s the same as any council estate. There are good areas and bad areas and good people and not-so-good people,’ Joyce told Sportsmail.
‘There is a strong community there and the love I feel from the area is amazing. I get loads of messages from people saying they are proud of me.
‘These are the things that keep me going and my biggest motivation is seeing the young kids come through from Southmead.
The 27-year-old (top) admitted even he prefers football to rugby but is not very good at it
‘I went to the reopening of the playground after it got burned down a few years ago. All I could see were kids playing rugby. Usually, it’s all football in Southmead but things are changing and rugby is being taken seriously there which makes me very proud.
‘Even I prefer football — I’m just not very good at it!’
The giant second row still retains close ties to the area. His rugby journey started at St Bede’s Catholic school in Lawrence Weston and after spells at St Mary’s Old Boys Rugby Club and Filton College, he joined Bristol’s academy.
The second row joined Bristol at age 14 when the Memorial Ground was the team’s home ground
When Joyce signed on with the Bears at 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 team’s home, not Ashton Gate as it is now.
‘The club has come such a long way,’ Joyce admitted. ‘When I joined the academy, there were only four players and we would turn up once a week to train.
‘There was no branded kit, we would do half an hour in the gym and then some skills. Other clubs had their academies in leagues but there wasn’t the money at Bristol to do that.’
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 boy making the grade.
‘My background means it is massive for me to play for Bristol,’ said Joyce. ‘I’ve always made it clear I want to be a one-club man. People tell me off for saying that but I don’t care. My dream growing up from a young age was to play for Bristol.
‘I’d spend my Saturdays at Ashton Gate watching Bristol City and then on Sundays I’d go to the Memorial Ground for the rugby. I never thought I’d play at Ashton Gate in a rugby shirt but now I do, I’m loving every second.’
Bristol is now a very different club since being run by billionaire owner Stephen Lansdown
Bristol reached last season’s Premiership play-offs and in 2020, Joyce started as Lam’s Bears lifted the European Challenge Cup with victory over Toulon.
Director of rugby Lam boasts superstars Semi Radradra, Charles Piutau and Kyle Sinckler in his squad. Sinckler’s fellow England prop Ellis Genge, a Bristolian like Joyce, will join for next season. The presence of such star quality means Joyce rarely gets the headlines but he remains a vitally important figure.
He will captain his side against Stade Francais in the Heineken Champions Cup tonight as Bristol finally begin their European campaign after their first two games were lost to Covid.
Pat Lam’s side lifted the European Challenge Cup with victory over Toulon in 2020
It will also be Joyce’s 150th first-team appearance for his hometown club.
‘Rugby is so ruthless. It’s a cut-throat business which means you can’t afford to reflect too much,’ Joyce said. ‘But when I get home, I do think it’s pretty special what I’m doing.
‘I’m lucky because I look around and people have come from all around the world to be in the Bristol changing room. It’s very special. I’d never have met the people I have 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 can come together from all around the world.’
Eligible for both England and Ireland, Joyce is a regular at Bristol City matches and cites former Arsenal captain Tony Adams as an inspiration because of his total dedication to the Gunners.
Joyce cites former Arsenal captain Tony Adams (left) as an inspiration because of his dedication
Like Adams did at Arsenal, Joyce plans to spend his entire career with Bristol.
‘With all the superstars we have, I pride myself on my consistency,’ said Joyce, whose time at Bristol nearly ended when Lam signed four second rows upon joining the club in 2017.
He then laughed: ‘Thank God for the salary cap coming down — they cannot get rid of me now. Every club needs a local volunteer.’