Former London Irish rugby star Conor Gilsenan told David Hennessy about his recent stint on BBC’s The Apprentice and starting a new career in business after his rugby days were cut short by injury.
Former London Irish and Ireland U20s rugby player Conor Gilsenan featured in the current series of The Apprentice.
But there was to be no £250,000 investment from Alan Sugar for Conor who was eliminated in week two.
Gilsenan, who hails from Mullingar in Co. Westmeath and currently works as a Sales Executive in London, heard the immortal words, ‘You’re fired!’ after a toothbrush marketing challenge saw the boys lose out to the girls.
But since his time filming the show came to an end, Conor has set up his own business and says the exposure from the show can only be positive as Lord Sugar is far from the only investor out there.
Conor told The Irish World: “When I came out, I was pretty gutted because I had foolishly placed a lot of expectation on it. I was disappointed when I came out and then over Christmas, I was a little bit anxious about how it would be portrayed and what the edit would come out like.
“I actually really enjoyed the last few weeks. When it was on air, it was good fun.
“And now I just look back on it as a fun chapter for the few weeks.
“I’m certainly over the disappointment of it.
“It’s a game show. It’s not real life. You can’t read into it too much.
“You can’t beat yourself up about it.”
His previous career surely stood Conor in good stead for the process.
Did he feel his experience helped him deal with the pressure? “I think it did. I said that going in.
“I felt I would be better equipped to deal with pressure than a lot of the people in there.
“The team environment was really quite extraordinary, like some of the people were really difficult to work with. Stuff I picked up in the past was helpful.”
The contradiction of being asked to work as a team while also trying to shine as individuals in addition to always being ready to throw team mates under the bus was not lost on Conor.
“It’s a massive contradiction. You’re supposed to work in a team and try and win but at the same time, everyone’s covering their own back and trying to make themselves look good and not make the team look good, which is totally contrary to what you’re taught as a rugby player.
“It’s always the team first at all costs. You have got to be selfless about it.
“And that just doesn’t fly in there.
“If you take ownership of your mistakes, you end up suffering the cost.”
Conor suffered when his tooth brushing app was described as boring.
“He (Lord Alan Sugar) probably had a look at all the business plans and probably earmarked a shortlist of the people he wanted in there.
“He’s got very limited information. He doesn’t go on tasks with you. He doesn’t see how the whole thing plays out.
“You’ve got a short window to talk to him in the boardroom. I was only in there three times.
“He was only starting to form an opinion on me and he was obviously leaning towards the other two guys.
“Whatever, I’m really not at the stage of being disappointed about it.
“I’m not gonna dwell on it. I don’t really care anymore.”
Conor wanted Alan Sugar to invest in a fleet of food and beverage vendors targeted at music and sports events.
Being eliminated from the show has not stopped him in that respect. He is a director of the mobile bar 301 Bar which he launched with fellow former London Irish player Topsy Ojo.
But the pub trade is also in Conor’s blood as his parents, Con and Joan, are proprietors of Con’s Bar on Dominick Street in Mullingar.
“We’ve got a mobile bar business.
“At the moment, we just operate out at London Irish home games. We’re also going into Chelsea women and we’re doing lots of private events during the summer, like weddings, birthday parties off the back of the exposure from The Apprentice.
“And then we’re also doing some food and drink festivals.
“I’ve got a real passion for it and it keeps me linked to the sport.
“On game day, we’re the only vendor outside the stadium pouring booze, the fans love it.
“The business didn’t exist before I went on The Apprentice.
“We had to build a pretty extensive business plan and when I came out, it gave me the impetus to go and do it.
“I needed to go inside there to kind of prove a point to myself and everyone else. That’s done now.
“The Apprentice has helped a little bit in pushing it out there. I’ve got a conversation coming up in a couple of weeks with an investor who’s reached out.
“That happens a lot of people, there’s a girl called Michaela Wain who went on to win 250,000 of investment and ended up getting 750,000 off the market for it.
“Success comes in different ways.
“It doesn’t necessarily come from winning the competition.”
Conor has been making plans for his life after rugby long before injury curtailed his career.
“I was always very proactive trying to prepare myself for the transition while I was playing.
“I didn’t want to be somebody who only had had rugby and then when that’s taken away due to age or injury or ability, you’re left with nothing to fall back on.
“I always took a keen interest in business.
“I always took a keen interest in my family business back home.
“It wasn’t completely foreign to me then when I had to wrap it up because of my injury and the transition has been relatively smooth.”
A product of the Leinster academy, Gilsenan joined London Irish and made over 70 appearances for the team between 2014-2020.
The former flanker/ back row captained London Irish in their run to the British & Irish Cup semi-final in 2017. He also played a part for The Exiles in successful promotion campaigns back to the Premiership.
Gilsenan was still with the Exiles when he was forced to retire from rugby in September 2020 after failing to overcome an injury problem.
He is still only 29.
“It was taken out of my hands,” he says of the decision to end his rugby career.
“I had a bit of a freak accident and the doctors felt it was beyond my reach to get back playing.
“At the time you’re obviously devastated about it but in one way it’s nice it’s taken out of your hands, you’re not left in limbo wondering whether it’s a good idea trying to get back playing when it’s not quite right.
“It’s just a clean break. There’s no going back.”
Is it hard to be around London Irish but not on the pitch? “Yeah, I was growing quite distant from it during lockdown.
“But I was loving watching them on TV- I became a super fan!
“They were really exciting to watch but I didn’t feel part of it at all.
“But since I’ve started up the bar with Topsy now, I’m out at the club every other week.
“I get to see the guys. I feel more part of it.
“And that’s a really, really nice attachment that I’m definitely going to hold on for as long as I can.
“You do see a lot of guys when they finish, they grow away from the game.
“They almost lose interest or grow a little bit bitter towards the game.
“I hope that doesn’t happen me.”
Like all their supporters, Conor has been overjoyed to see Declan Kidney’s team doing so well this season.
“They’re going really good. They’re really exciting to watch.
“They’re pulling bigger crowds every week at Brentford.
“I’m glad I have a small bit of attachment to them when that happened because when I was there, it was very topsy turvy, we were up and down the leagues.
“They got rid of all the dead wood and now they’re flying,” he says with a laugh.
Asking Conor for a highlight of his career is hard for him as he didn’t play senior rugby for Ireland or lift major honours, it is more being involved day-to-day that he remembers.
“Yeah, it’s a funny one.
“I did a podcast the other day and he was like, ‘What was the highlight of your career?’
“And I really struggled on that question because when you start your career in the academy, all you want to do is play for your country and win silverware.
“Neither of those really happened at the top level for me.
“So I do take solace or have gratitude for the fact that I enjoyed the process of being a professional rugby player.
“I loved the day to day, I loved the camaraderie in the changing room, the competitive environment.
“On a day-to-day basis, I was very proud of what I did as a profession. And there aren’t tonnes of people who can say that.
“I do look back on it with very fond memories and pride that I got to do it for such a long time.
“In terms of highlights, those two years that we got promoted were great because you achieved what you set out to do at the start of the season.
“I also loved my time at Leinster when I was in the academy there.
“The year when you go Under 20s is really special.
“You grow and you go through the system with a lot of those guys and then you’re playing on an international stage and you’re going away to the junior world cup.
“They were really, really good memories that I’ll definitely cherish moving forward.”
After hanging up his rugby boots, Conor became a sales executive in London at ecommerce group FIS.
Does Conor miss rugby? “I don’t miss the contact and the constant pain you’re walking around in.
“I do miss the environment.
“That’s a cool place to be.
“I’m moving on. I’m getting my kicks from other things now.
“I’m in a sales environment.
“I like the competitiveness and how straightforward the rewards are there rather than rugby.
“Sometimes you can be working your balls off but you’re not getting picked or there’s not a contract there for you.
“That’s frustrating whereas in sales if you just keep putting your head down and listen to more senior people around you, the road to success is a bit more linear.
“But I don’t know that for a fact. I’m still pretty inexperienced.”
It may not have worked out how he would have wanted but Conor has no regrets about going on the show.
“No regrets. I would have regretted it more if when the opportunity came up, I didn’t do it.
“Maybe wondering, ‘What if?’ But I’ve done it. It didn’t work out.
“I’m no worse off as a result of it. You learn from the experience and you just move on.”
The Apprentice continues on BBC1 on Thursdays.
For more information on The 301 Bar, click here.