Conor Joyce is not only a professional rugby player, but a man who is making a difference across the island and far, far beyond, along with his brother Kieran.
In this interview I talk with Conor about his rugby career to date, and more importantly how he is raising awareness of men’s mental health in sport through Noggin Sport.
Here’s is what was said:
Has rugby always been a big part of your life since you were small?
I’ll be honest I initially was a keen footballer, loved Roy Keane. I only started playing rugby when I was 11 and absolutely loved the close bond between teammates, something I don’t think you get with other sports.
When did you know you could make it as a professional rugby player?
As many of the Reds lads will tell you, you don’t play rugby to become a professional rugby player, you play for the love of the game. It’s not until I started playing age grade level that I realised I could potentially have a chance at doing this at the highest level.
How good was it playing for Ireland all the way through your youth?
I played Ireland u18s, 19s, 20s and loved every minute of it. The lads were brilliant and very welcoming to me. I’ve had some amazing coaches along the way which have themselves gone on to coach at higher levels, which is great to see. In my age grade level we had guys who have gone on to represent Ireland at senior level, which is also great to see!
How was it captaining Ireland at the u20 Junior World Cup?
The Junior World Cup was one of the best experiences of my rugby career. Having the chance to play against different guys from all over the world was amazing! The crowds were bigger than anything I’d have experienced at the time, the anthems, the build up to games was unbelievable! It was an honour to captain my team during the World Cup. Fun fact – Leroy Van Dam was playing for New Zealand in the same Junior World Cup!
How good were your years at Ulster?
Playing at Ulster at a young age was great. They have a great academy system there and I was very lucky to come through with the help of great coaches in Gary Longwell, Allen Clarke and David Drake. Having the chance to learn of the likes of British and Irish back row Stephen Ferris was invaluable to me! At the time we had some world class internationals that were so willing to help out a young man. I had my first cap just after my 18th birthday against Leinster on Boxing Day!
What made you move to Jersey to play for Reds – how big a move was it in terms of lifestyle as well as playing?
Moving to Jersey was something I had to do for my playing career. With such a world class back row, I wasn’t getting the game time I needed to improve so I decided to move on. I made some great memories and mates in Belfast! It gets a hard time because of its past, but honestly it’s a very beautiful place with amazing people and lots of character!
What is it like to play for the Reds?
Playing for Jersey is very unique because it’s an island! We spend nearly every day together whether it be in training or on days off, which can be challenging at times. We have a real sense of brotherhood in the squad! I love how the fans are so accessible, it’s a real family club which can be lost in the modern game.
What is the favourite part of being in Jersey?
For me, despite my pale complexion, I do love the summers here! Having the opportunity to go to the beach 5 minutes away is amazing! I love how close the lads are here, which gives me a real sense of family away from home!
You also coach the women’s team. How has that been?
Yes I started coaching last year. It’s something I’m very passionate about – inspiring the younger female generation to give rugby a go. A sport previously not associated with girls! We’re quite a new squad but we’ve come on leaps and bounds from last year. We’ve had an influx of touch players join us this year which has increased competition for places! It’s great to see so many women getting involved with rugby on the island! I’d definitely like to continue coaching as I’d like to pass on my knowledge to others.
You are a co-founder of Noggin Sport – tell us more about what exactly that is?
Yes, my brother & I started Noggin Sport 2 years ago, which initially started as a university project. We raise awareness of mental health in sport through our unique apparel range.
Why did you want to start it – has mental health affected you in the past?
Back in Belfast my brother went through a hard time with depression. After he managed to get himself back in a positive space we decided to combine two things that we were both very passionate about, sport and mental health and came up with Noggin! Sadly we then lost our uncle to suicide later that year, and that spurred us on to actually go hard on Noggin to promote mental health awareness as much as we can! Something that started as uni project went from strength to strength! People were so keen to support us and what we were doing!
What would your personal advice be to those who are affected by mental health?
I think it’s very important to realise you’re not alone. You’re not a burden, talk to someone about how you’re feeling! Sometimes it can feel like a weight off your shoulders.
Also, what would you say to those who want to help someone?
Having been in the position myself, and having spoken to my brother we both agree listening is key. Sometimes the person won’t be ready to talk to you! You have to be patient. But when they’re ready to open up to you, give them all of your attention and listen.
Just how big has Noggin Sport become? Are you proud of what you and your brother have started?
It’s really gone from strength to strength. So many people want to get involved and want to support us as much as they can! We’re extremely proud of what we’ve created. If we could help one person to seek help with a mental health problem then all the work we do will be worth it!
What are your future plans for Noggin Sport?
We’ll be launching a new campaign with Birmingham City FC in the new year which we’re excited about! We’ll also be relaunching our #BobbleMyNoggin competition in the New Year whereby teams who’ve bought Noggin Hats can win £1000 for their chosen charity!
How can people get involved and donate to Noggin Sport?
Our profits support mental health projects across the U.K. and Ireland. Our website is http://www.nogginsport.org. Noggin Sport is dedicated to raising awareness of the effects of mental health and mental illness in sport through our headwear and clothing range. You can also follow us on Instagram @nogginsport1. We want to promote awareness of mental health as much as we can.
What an inspirational man Conor is. Mental health is something that has been spoken more and more about in sports in recent years, and Conor, along with Kieran, are making big steps in making an impact too.
I would like to thank Conor for talking about some very personal moments in his life with me.
Noggin Sport will only get bigger and bigger, and full credit should and will go to the Joyce brothers for making differences in so many people’s lives.