An interview with Smokin’ Joe. Nothing much new but an interesting insight into the man that after a self imposed exile could be key for England’s World Cup chances in Japan.
Joe Marler’s first excursion with England to Japan did not go well. Ten years ago, playing in the world under-20 championship, he was sent off for striking a Japanese opponent in the first match in Tokyo, suspended for the next two games and did not feature again as an England team including Ben Youngs, Jamie George and Courtney Lawes made it all the way to the final.
Now Marler is back in Japan, as a potentially pivotal figure in the England squad for the World Cup starting next week, having reversed the decision he made last September to retire from playing international rugby – the reasons for which he describes as “clear as muck”. With his fellow loosehead prop Mako Vunipolacurrently injured, Marler’s return has restored 62 caps’ worth of valuable nous to the front row, so much so that he is covering the tighthead role too, and his playful, funny character could prove brilliantly useful in a mentally and physical taxing tournament lasting six weeks if England reach the final. But there is a mystique to Marler too: his tendency for getting himself into scrapes on the field has been clouded by his own statements at first suggesting he had actively sought disciplinary bans to get out of trips with England, then clarifying by saying a series of red and yellow cards for his club – including one at Bristol immediately before he stood down from Tests in September – were symptomatic of the pressure of knowing he would be away from his family of wife Daisy and two young children, since joined by a third.
Whatever the truth is – and it is believed Marler was given a sharp reprimand by the Harlequins hierarchy at the time of his six-week ban for a petulant sending-off for his club in January 2018 – England supporters must be hoping the positive aspects will come shining through. “It was a case of needing to make that decision [about family] at the time, and then deciding to make that [different] decision at this time,” Marler said a couple of weeks ago, in his distinctive Sussex burr. “Clear as muck. [But] I made my decision and decided to fully immerse myself in it…just throwing myself into it and see where it gets me. Of course it [family] is an issue, because I want to make sure my wife and kids will be all right at home. That will be in the back of my mind. But we have had our conversations this time around, and… me and my wife are hoping to spend our lives together – not always the case as 60 per cent or something [of marriages] these days end in divorce – but we hope we do and it is actually a small slice of time in our lives.” There is, of course, a financial incentive for all the England players too, of a reported £225,000 each if they win the World Cup.
Gurn and scrum
So there Marler was, last Sunday, in the middle of the requisite photo of the team boarding the plane from Heathrow to Tokyo: his 30 fellow players and Eddie Jones and the coaches smiling sweetly, with their 29-year-old wild card in the middle, all big, bristling beard and Mohawk haircut, and one bushy eyebrow arching upwards in a customary gurn for the cameras. Marler with his easy-going banter is a go-to figure for in-house reporters with a good example being a video he made to publicise Harlequins’ Christmas-gift range, in which he comically peels off one layer after another, and another, of miscellaneous shirts and training gear.
Many a judge reckons Marler produced the form of his life for Quins last season, during his international exclusion. He hit hard in defence, in both narrow and wide channels, won turnovers in tight spots where others held off, and with his brick-like shoulders and stooping gait, he was a rock in the scrum and line-out. He raised laughs in April with his shout heard over the referee mic of “you’re f***ing boring me, hurry up!” to Exeter opponents during a ponderous box-kick routine. It all goes into the eclectic Marler mix together with his opting-out of an England tour of Australia in 2016, saying he had sought psychological help after feeling “out of control” in a European semi-final.
There is no doubt about Marler’s expertise in that weird sphere of shoving his face into the scrum’s tunnel of darkness. Discussing Georgian counterparts once, he said props could be either “gym-strong or farm, old-man strong”. Marler has a lot of both, and really it will be fascinating to see how England’s entire propping cohort cope: from the old king Dan Cole to the freewheeling Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge, and the currently hamstrung Vunipola. On the standby list is Ben Moon, the Exeter Chief who took the place of the then 18-year-old Marler for the remainder of that under-20 championship in Japan, a decade ago.
Apart from a few minutes in the recent friendly with Italy, Marler has not played on the tighthead side of a scrum since his young days on loan down the leagues at Worthing and Esher. “There are questions an international loosehead will ask you that are different from a bald-headed guy from Blackheath who just walks around the corner,” he said. “I am in contact with Jase [Jason Leonard, who did both roles famously for England] and will be tapping him up. We have experimented it a little bit at Quins. Adam [Jones, the scrum coach and ex-Wales prop] had some funky ideas of putting the tighthead at hooker. But I couldn’t understand the theory behind it, so we canned it early doors.”