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

CONOR Carey was about to quit. During his two years with Worcester, the Irish tighthead prop had seen it all. Achilles tendon rupture, hamstring rip, bicep rupture.

Due of his ailments, Carey pondered retiring at 29.

He is now at Northampton Saints and would have played against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup today if it hadn’t been cancelled due to Covid-19.

A stint in France persuaded Carey to keep playing. He was on his way to Pro D2 team Nevers to see if he wanted to continue his pro career when his agency called to say Top 14 outfit Perpignan needed a prop. Carey was back in action two days later in a pre-season encounter versus Toulouse in the French Alps.

That was a long day with Dupont, Ntamack, and Cyril Baille going around.

Carney was then signed by Northampton to a contract until the end of the current season, which he aims to extend beyond 2022/23.

Carey was born in London to Newry and Tipperary parents. Because they were both doctors, Conor spent his early years in Hong Kong and Cardiff before moving to Belfast at the age of eight.

Carey played rugby at Methody College with future players Niall Annett, Michael Allen, Paddy Jackson, Michael Heaney, and Craig Gilroy. When the starting prop got injured in his second year of high school, Carey stepped up and made the Ireland U18s team.

In 2011, he was an Ireland U20 international alongside Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, JJ Hanrahan, and Andrew Conway.

Ireland finished seventh in a season that saw an embarrassment of riches.

To win 200 caps for Ulster wasn’t in his future growing up in Belfast. He entered the academy but did not graduate into the province’s senior squad.

In 2013, he had to accept reality and join newly promoted Championship team Ealing.

We had to leave Ulster because I wasn’t playing and they didn’t want me. I could either stay home and finish university or go to England.

“One coach said I wouldn’t make it, so they thought
Carey, then 21, joined Ealing and had to fight to stay afloat in a team that was floundering. He went from Ulster to a club where several players were part-time.

“We lost 12 straight,” Carey recalls. And then our win was quadrupled by the owner. We won our next four!”

Despite Ealing’s relegation, Carey impressed twice against Nottingham. He could either join Ealing in National 1 or accept a lower contract with Nottingham to continue in the Championship.

He was earning “a pittance” in Ealing but took a reduced wage to work in Nottingham for two years, where he excelled.

I’ve never felt better about myself,” adds Carey. In Ealing, Carey recalls he was “stuck” for the first ten games. “I learned some hard lessons.

“But I was only suspended for one game in three years.

“I played 70-80 games, which helped. Now I pity the Champions. The standard was high when I was there, but the money has plummeted. I still think it benefits some players and would miss it.”

Carey’s performances in the English second division drew the attention of Connacht boss Pat Lam, who welcomed him back to Ireland in the summer of 2016.

Even though Carey was still healing from shoulder surgery in Nottingham, it was an excellent moment to arrive in Galway.

Since my summer training partner was John Cooney, I had to put up with him calling himself the ‘Champ Champ’ and parading about like McGregor.

“No, he was great and helped me fit in. I was always at his place.

“I adored Connacht. Even though I am from Ulster, I consider Connacht my home club. I adored Galway and still prefer Connacht.”

Carey became healthy and played 13 times in his debut season before Lam left and Kieran Keane took over in 2017/18, with Carey playing 24 times. Others disliked Keane, but Andy Friend replaced him the following season, and Carey only started seven games. He liked those three years at Connacht and is still in touch with Jack Carty, Gavin Thornbury, Tom Farrell, and Jonny Murphy.

“The city has a great vibe and I was younger so I loved the nightlife. We had a great time together as a young social group. Many fine folks have a chip on their shoulder.”

Carey signed with Worcester despite interest from Bristol and Newcastle, but injuries plagued him during his spell in the West Midlands city.

He lost his Achilles in January 2020 and hamstring nine months later. He tore his other hamstring a few months later and then ruptured his bicep making a tackle against London Irish. That blow seemed like the end.

Then I started crying in the changing room because I realised my time in Worcester and possibly rugby was finished.

Carey liked the Kiwi coach.

“I had been talking to my agency and felt I needed to play after not playing rugby for 16 months.”

Niall Annett, a teammate from Worcester, was blunt with Carey. He advised Carey to become fit and get out of his own way.

Carey’s partner and parents were supportive, even if his mother is afraid of seeing him injure himself again.

Her pet peeve is a scrum. The Tipperary girl grew up hurling.

Carey required a short stay in Perpignan. In 10 minutes he might be at the beach. He was ready when Northampton called in October.

He’s played in the Premiership and Champions Cup this season, including a December cameo in Belfast.

If you can’t join them, beat them! Especially the Connacht win, the first in Ravenhill in 60 years.”

Carey is loving life with Saints and hopes to sign a new contract, as well as planning his post-rugby life. His MBA and extra accounting studies should prepare him well.

First, Carey believes he has much left in rugby.

“I’ve gotten paid better as I’ve gotten older,” Carey says of becoming a pro player.

“It can be really emotional depending on whether you’re on the squad or not. It’s the first time in a long time that I’m aware I’m out of contract at the end of the year.

Even if it ended today, I would look back on it and say, ‘I’ve liked what I’ve done.’

“It’s not as PC as regular work. On the bus to games, people play PlayStation or cards. You get to smack people, maul them, and try to break them in scrums. It was my childhood dream team. That riled me up to snub him.”