Conor Carey in action against Munster during this time with Connacht. James Crombie/INPHO
Irish Abroad

'It’s nowhere near as PC as normal jobs. You get to run around and hit people'

Conor Carey’s career has taken him from Ulster to Connacht and on to Northampton Saints.

LAST SUMMER, CONOR Carey was close to packing it in. The Irish tighthead prop had been through the wringer during his two years with Worcester. Here’s how it went – Achilles tendon rupture, hamstring tear, hamstring tear, bicep rupture.

The injuries had left him without a contract and Carey considered calling it quits at the age of 29.

“I wasn’t sure if I could do it anymore or if I wanted to do it anymore,” says Carey, who is now with Northampton Saints and would have featured against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup today but for the game being cancelled due to Covid-19.

It was a stint in France that convinced Carey to continue playing. He had travelled over to Pro D2 club Nevers to have a look around the place, weighing up whether he really wanted to continue his pro career, when his agent called him and said Top 14 club Perpignan were short of a prop. Two days later, Carey was in the mix at pre-season camp up the French Alps where they played a training game against Toulouse.

“That was a hard old day having not done a team session since early March and then you’ve got Dupont and Ntamack and Cyril Baille running around.” 

Three days later, Carey played in a friendly match against Colomiers in 36°C and he featured twice in the Top 14 before Northampton signed him up on a deal until the end of the current season, a contract he hopes to extend into 2022/23.

Carey was born in London to a dad from Newry and a mum from Tipperary. They were both doctors and their work meant Conor also lived in Hong Kong and Cardiff during his youth before they settled down in Belfast when he was eight.

Rugby took hold when he went to Methody College and Carey played in a brilliant team that included future professionals Niall Annett, Michael Allen, Paddy Jackson, Michael Heaney, and Craig Gilroy. Carey wasn’t a star until his second last year in school when the starting prop got injured, he came into the team, and went all the way into the Ireland U18s side.

He progressed to captain the Ulster U19s the following season and he was an Ireland U20 international in 2011 at the same time as the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, JJ Hanrahan, and Andrew Conway.

“We had an embarrassment of riches and we should have done a lot better than we did,” says Carey of a campaign when Ireland finished eighth.

Growing up in Belfast, his dream was to win 200 caps for Ulster but it wasn’t to be. He went into the academy but didn’t come out the other side into the province’s senior squad.

In 2013, he had to face the reality of looking elsewhere and signed for the newly-promoted Championship club Ealing.

“I was really sad leaving Ulster but I wasn’t playing and they didn’t particularly want me. I could either stay at home to finish university and play club rugby or I could go to England.

“One coach told me that I wasn’t going to make it, so they thought there was no point in me going to England… that riled me up to stick two fingers up at him.”

conor-carey Conor Carey is enjoying life with Northampton. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

At the age of 21, Carey headed into the unknown with Ealing and had to fight to stay afloat in a team that was struggling to keep its head above water. He went from the top-class Ulster set-up to a club where some of the players were part-time.

“We lost 12 games in a row,” recalls Carey. “Then the owner came in and doubled our win bonus. We won the next four games!”

Ealing were eventually relegated but Carey impressed twice against Nottingham, who came in with an offer. His choice was this – drop into National 1 with Ealing or take up a reduced contract offer with Nottingham to stay in the Championship.

He had been on what he calls “a pittance” in Ealing but took a lower salary to join Nottingham, where he stayed for two years and developed hugely.

“Going to the Championship was the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Carey. “For the first 10 games in Ealing, I got my head shoved up my hole,” says Carey. “I got taught some absolute lessons.

“But I only missed one game in three years when I was suspended for a stamp.

“I played 70 or 80 games and that helped a lot. I feel sorry for the Championship guys now. When I was there, the standard was very good but the money has dropped off now. I still think it’s good for some players and I’d hate to see it go.”

Carey’s performances in the English second division caught the attention of Connacht boss Pat Lam and he brought the big prop back to Ireland in the summer of 2016, just after the province had won their Pro12 title.

It was a good time to arrive in Galway, the city still fizzing with excitement, although Carey landed in while still recovering from shoulder surgery in Nottingham.

“Unfortunately for me, my training partner for the whole summer was John Cooney so I had to put up with him telling me he was the ‘Champ Champ’ every day and walking around like McGregor.

“But no, he was really good and helped me to integrate. I was over at his house all the time.

“I loved Connacht, I loved the place. I would probably call Connacht my home club even though I’m from Ulster. I loved Galway as a city and even now I’d watch Connacht over anyone else.”

Carey got fit and featured 13 times in that first season before Lam departed and Kieran Keane took over for the 2017/18 campaign when the tighthead racked up 24 appearances. Others disliked Keane but Carey had no issues with the Kiwi coach.

shane-delahunt-peter-mccabe-and-conor-carey Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe and Conor Carey. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Andy Friend came in for the following campaign and though Carey made 18 appearances, he had only seven starts. It was to be his final season in Connacht but he loved those three years and remains in touch with the likes of Jack Carty, Gavin Thornbury, Tom Farrell, and Jonny Murphy today.

“The atmosphere in the city is so friendly and I was a bit younger so I was enjoying the nightlife a lot. It was a good, young social group and we spent a lot of time together. There’s a lot of good people there with a chip on their shoulders.”

The English qualification was handy and Carey signed up with Worcester despite interest from Bristol and Newcastle, but his time in the West Midlands city proved to be cruel as injuries repeatedly struck him down.

His Achilles went in January 2020 and when he returned nine months later, he tore his hamstring. A couple of months later, he tore his other hamstring and when he finally got fit after that, he ruptured his bicep making a tackle in a game against London Irish. That blow felt like the final chapter.

“I walked down the tunnel and started crying in the changing room because I knew that was my time in Worcester over and maybe the end in rugby.

“I had been talking to my agent and knew I needed to be playing having had so little rugby over the 16 months before.”

Carey’s close friend, Worcester team-mate Niall Annett, was blunt with him. He told Carey to get out of his own head, get fit, and go again.

Carey’s partner was supportive and his parents were too, even if his mum struggles to watch him playing rugby for fear of witnessing another injury.

“She hates scrums,” says Carey. “She’s from Tipp so it was always hurling growing up.”

The short-term spell in Perpignan was exactly what Carey needed. He lived 10 minutes from the training ground and five minutes from the beach. Rugby became fun again and he was ready when Northampton came calling in October.

He has featured in the Premiership and Champions Cup this season, including an appearance off the bench in Belfast in December.

“It’s always one of my favourite games playing against Ulster because it was who I grew up wanting to play for.

conor-carey-and-his-father-after-the-game Carey and his father. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“If you can’t join them, beat them! Especially the win we got with Connacht, the first time winning in Ravenhill in 60 years, that was brilliant.”

Carey is enjoying life with Saints and is hopeful of finalising a new deal with the club, as well as keeping an eye on life post-rugby. His degree in business management and further studies in accounting should leave him well set.

Before all of that, Carey believes he has plenty left to do in rugby.

“As I’ve got older, I’ve got paid better which justifies it compared to getting into it at 21,” says Carey of being a pro player.

“It can be so emotional and that changes week by week depending on if you’re in the team or not. This is the first time in a long time where I know I’m out of contract at the end of the year and I’m just very relaxed about it.

“I feel like I’ve been playing well, I’m in a reasonable place and even if it ended now, I would look back and say, ‘I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done.’

“It’s nowhere near as PC as normal jobs. We go to matches on the bus and people are playing PlayStation or playing cards. You get to run around and hit people, maul against people, you get to try and break people in scrums.

“I genuinely think there’s no better job. I hope I have another four or five years left.”

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