Joe Marler has become one of England’s most important players, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
England have had their problems in the front row in recent seasons. Leaving aside hooker Dylan Hartley and his inability to keep his temper in check, their props have been blighted with injury for the best part of two years. Since the start of 2014 the one-time first-choice duo of tighthead Dan Cole and loosehead Alex Corbisiero have appeared in just nine Tests between them because of neck surgery for the former and knee reconstruction for the latter. One of their deputies, Mako Vunipola, also spent six months out last year after dislocating his knee, all of which has meant England have relied more than ever on Joe Marler.
In the past two years the 25-year-old loosehead has missed just one of England’s 20 Tests, becoming one of his country’s most important figures. The English press likes to flutter its eyes at the glamour pusses in the backline – the likes of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Jonny May – but it’s thanks to the granite presence of Marler that they have the ball to cut loose.
‘Joe has become a truly elite player,’ explains David Flatman, the former England prop turned TV commentator. ‘Initially he was an exciting ball-carrier, occasional big hitter … now his consistency and tackling technique is better than any other loosehead in the world game. His scrummaging, while not always snarlingly aggressive, is very strong and, again, consistent.’
Flatman believes Marler provides England with the same stability Tony Woodcock has given the New Zealand scrum over the past decade, high praise indeed for a man whose initiation into professional rugby was daunting. Marler hails from Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, a town best known for its beach and retirement homes.
In his early teens it was assumed he would join his uncle’s turfing business once school was out of the way, and that’s how his life might have panned out had he not joined a local rugby club and subsequently been scouted by Harlequins.
They saw in the raw youth the qualities of a decent prop forward: natural strength, in-your-face attitude and a willingness to learn. And Marler had to learn several hard lessons in the early years. In his first season with Harlequins in 2010-11 he was made to look foolish at Gloucester against England prop Paul Doran-Jones.
‘He gave me a right pasting,’ Marler later admitted. ‘Technically and strength-wise, he did a job on me. I told myself afterwards I’d work hard and see what happened when he came up to us.’
When the clubs met a few months later, Marler came out on top, and the following year, aged 21, he made his England debut against South Africa in Durban, packing down against Jannie du Plessis.
‘It was such a learning experience because the South Africans are very tough, especially the tight five,’ he reflected. ‘Du Plessis is one of the toughest I’ve played against.’
Marler didn’t disgrace himself, however, and more importantly he proved over the next year to be a diligent and honest pupil, never afraid to seek advice from his elders and betters. Nonetheless, he was overlooked for the 2013 Lions tour to Australia, while Cole, Vunipola and Corbisiero all made the trip. In hindsight, however, did the snub work to Marler’s advantage? Instead he toured Argentina with England that June, a far greater challenge for a young prop than a jaunt Down Under.
In the two years since that Lions tour, Cole, Vunipola and Corbisiero have been bedevilled by injuries, while Marler has avoided any serious knocks. He’s also matured. Gone are the outrageous haircuts and while he still sports an extravagant beard, he now looks like an England prop rather than a cast-off from a Sex Pistols tribute band. Fatherhood has made him grow up; so too the captaincy of Harlequins.
‘There is a side to Joe that most people don’t see,’ said Quins director of rugby Conor O’Shea, in explaining his decision to make Marler captain last year. ‘The side that has helped make him the best loosehead in Europe, that sees him prepare properly, build knowledge, devote himself to what needs to be done to ensure he and the team are in the best possible condition.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine