Appearing on The NRL Rookie, and having his flaws as a rugby league player exposed, has been a difficult experience for Reece Joyce but it's been nothing compared to what he's already been through.

The 24-year-old is one of four Kiwi-born contestants picked from more than 1200 applicants on an Australian reality TV show trying to find an unknown talent, with the winner guaranteed an NRL contract. It's rugby league's version of X-Factor and survival of the fittest.

Joyce is most definitely a survivor.

He's overcome a turbulent South Auckland upbringing marred by domestic violence and gangs and a desire to fulfil a once forgotten dream is driving him through the series.


Halfway through, Joyce is growing in stature. One player is cut each episode by NRL Rookie head coach, former Australia and NSW State of Origin captain and Channel Nine commentator, Brad Fittler, and his assistants, former internationals and club teammates, Mark Geyer and Adrian Lam.

With the benefit of some heavy life experience, and a partner and three children to fend for, the Otara Scorpions league and Auckland rugby junior representative says The NRL Rookie is his last shot at the big time.

"I've always wanted to be a league player but then I took the wrong path at a young age and that dream slowly faded," Joyce explains. "I was brought up in Otara and there was quite a bit of domestic violence and drunken feuds.

"There were local gangs that were trying to look after the boys and I actually thought that lifestyle was normal because my mates were all going through the same thing."

Joyce saw his life heading in one of two directions he knew would inevitably intertwine - prison or gang life - before the prospect of becoming a teenage dad prompted him to make some big changes.

Working in civil construction, he was enjoying playing club rugby with Bombay last year, when a television promotion for The NRL Rookie inspired him to make a last-ditch return to the 13-man code.

"My partner and I were just sitting on the couch watching The Footy Show and it popped up and I thought, 'why not?'" he said. "I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain and for me it's pretty much my last chance.

"My kids are old enough to understand why dad isn't going to be home, because I'm doing something I enjoy, so it's the perfect time to do it."


The first episode saw Joyce play his first game of league after a 10-year hiatus and he admits it took a few weeks to find his feet as an organising playmaker.

A trip to Auckland to take on a Warriors development side provided a fitting occasion to stand tall, with Joyce earning the respect of his teammates and coaching staff after directing the Rookie side as fill-in captain.

He faces a nervous wait before the series culminates next month with the live finale attended by all 16 NRL clubs to decide who becomes the outright winner for 2016.

"It's nerve-wracking," he said. "Getting a little taste and a glimpse of the life I could be leading was just overwhelming and it's something I want to keep chasing."

Meanwhile, Joyce has been back in Auckland and building on his recent experience to guide Papakura through a 12-game winning streak that has them atop of the Fox Memorial ladder.

His 'rookie' tag has earned him his share of friendly ribbing from teammates and drawn frequent sledges from opposition players but he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I cop quite a bit each week, as you do," he laughs. "You develop a tight bond with the boys and have good banter with them but it's also quite humbling because I think they are quite proud of me and it's good to have their support."