The England prop, Man of the Match in Harlequins' title triumph, has been through the mill, as his outstanding book Loose Head reveals. But he's come out smiling
The rocky rise of Joe Marler
Joe Marler was 21 when he helped Harlequins win the 2012 English Premiership. Yesterday he was back at Twickenham as Quins beat Exeter Chiefs in an epic final.
His career has featured 72 England caps and a British & Irish Lions tour, but his Man of the Match performance against Chiefs was right up there as one of the most cherished days of his professional life. He doesn’t score the tries but he has been at the heart of Quins’ coruscating attacking, providing the scrum platform from which so much is launched.
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My first memory of him came in about 2010, when he landed a magnificent drop-goal for England U20 from near the halfway line. Shame it was only whilst warming up for training.
Marler has since become one of the best-known personalities in the game, and a player synonymous with mental health issues that presumably never crossed his carefree mind when he was having a lark in training more than a decade ago.
His book Loose Head, ghosted by Rachel Murphy and published by Ebury Press last autumn, is not only outstanding but unusual. Eschewing convention, it explores in separate chapters subjects such as hairstyles, nicknames, drinking and image.
The book starts with Martin Johnson, at Marler’s first England training camp, telling the young prop to get rid of his “stupid” haircut – a red mohican with stars and stripes shaved into the sides of his head. “It was a brilliant haircut, my best ever,” says Marler. “There was no way in the world I was getting rid of it, not even for Martin Johnson.”
And so the theme is established. Marler defiantly doing things his own way, not kowtowing to others in authority. Commendable or foolish? Maybe both. When he was sent off for punching Leicester’s Marcos Ayerza, Conor O’Shea advised him to shave off his mohawk and wear a suit and tie for the disciplinary hearing. “Surely they’re judging my behaviour, not my haircut?” said Marler, who ignored the advice and copped a poor outcome from the panel.
Years later, he was invited on to Jonathan Ross’s show and a production assistant had palpitations after Marler turned up wearing shorts, white T-shirt and brown Doc Martens. And his wedding attire? A phlegm-green T-shirt was part of it, which didn’t help when he was hastily searching for a couple of strangers willing to act as witnesses at his registry-office marriage to childhood sweetheart Daisy.
Marler was 11 when he played his first rugby game, for Eastbourne Sharks U12s. He was fuming after being put at full-back because he was too slow to catch the fast players and felt humiliated. Then his attitude changed as parents on the sidelines started shouting encouragement, calling “Go on Psycho, get him!” By the end he loved it, and no longer felt like a “fat loser”.
His ‘Psycho’ nickname is something he explores in a chapter headed Red Mist. His tendency to snap as a child was quite a concern. On one occasion he smashed one of his sisters over the head with a rake and split her scalp. Hilariously, his Eastbourne coach decided to get individual shirts done with each player’s nickname on it, and when Marler opened his packet it had been spelt P-H-Y-S-C-O.
Episodes of rage have plagued him in later years too. In 2017, a Wasps fan leaned over the hoardings and shouted, “You’re a disgrace, Marler! A complete thug! I hope your parents are proud of you!” The red mist descended and Marler clambered over the barrier and chased his abuser 25 rows up into the stand before a security guard intercepted him and escorted Marler back to the changing rooms.
Marler admits he had a chip on his shoulder when he joined Quins via a comprehensive school, rather than Epsom College or Cranleigh like many of the academy boys. He felt judged when others clocked his Asda Smart Price shampoo next to their Molton Brown in the shower. When they ribbed him for his mohawk, he used it as a motivator. It was like a red rag to a bull. Bring it on, I’ll show you lot, he’d be thinking.
In his first week as a pro player, aged 17, he almost got arrested at a team social when a fight erupted in a nightclub. Dean Richards was cross that he drank so much – but delighted that Marler had rushed to help an academy mate in trouble; the ‘posh boys’ had scarpered.
The chapter Mind Games details the way in which Marler tries to unsettle opponents. Breaking into song as he binds in the scrum – Tina Turner or Adele, perhaps – is just a part of it. There’s the sly foot stamp. The stud scraped down an ankle. The nipple tweak or the hair pull. Untying a player’s shoelace at the bottom of a ruck is effective.
All these are ploys that Marler has used to distract opponents. Occasionally things have gone wrong, as with Fondlegate and Gypsygate. He thinks he was wrong to sledge Samson Lee with the “Gypsy Boy” comment, an episode that cost him a two-week ban and a £20,000 fine. Tickling Alun Wyn Jones’s balls during last year’s Six Nations earned him a ten-week ban. His main lesson from that was: don’t get caught.
There is a self-destructive element to some of Marler’s behaviour and an acute example occurred on the 2012 England tour to South Africa. Celebrating his first cap in time-honoured tradition in the bar, Marler quickly became the worse for wear. Devilishly, Geoff Parling dared him to go over to Stuart Barnes, who was in the same bar, and call him a helmet. Marler met the challenge.
If irking a TV commentator wasn’t bad enough, Parling upped the stakes by daring Marler to fling the same insult at referee Steve Walsh, who was also in the bar. Marler staggered over to Walsh and blurted out: “Hello. Good to see you. Can I just say I think you’re a helmet.” And then he scooted off before waiting for a reaction.
The following year Walsh took charge of the Wales v England game in Cardiff and penalised Marler mercilessly in the scrum. No one is suggesting Adam Jones didn’t dominate the young English upstart that day but you have to feel Marler’s exchange with Walsh the previous summer did him no favours whatsoever.
There’s no end of amusing stories in Loose Head, and they make a stark contrast to the topic for which Marler’s book has rightly attracted most attention: his decline into clinical depression. In an interview last year with The Guardian, Marler says friends of his questioned why he had plonked such a heavy subject into a book full of funny anecdotes. “Don’t you think that’s the wrong tone?” they had asked him.
Marler’s response is to use laughter as a coping mechanism. The extent of his mental illness is laid out for all to see and, despite his well-publicised issues, it comes as a shock. January 2016 seems to be the start of it, not long after a home-based Rugby World Cup that left him mortified because of England’s abject failure.
Quins were playing Worcester away and Marler, after a poor performance, decided that Dean Ryan, Worcester’s DoR, was being ironic when he said “Well played, Joe” with a grin on his face at the end of the match. A terse exchange ensued before Marler slapped Ryan in the ‘family jewels’. Ryan, astonished, kicked Marler in the shin and the Quins player walked off.
Whizz forward to March 2019 and Marler has a huge row in the car with Daisy, the trigger for which was his apparent indifference to whether he ran over a squirrel. When Marler got home he smashed up his kitchen in frustration, damaging his hand. When Quins played Saracens the following day at London Stadium, he tried to kid the doctor that he’d dropped a weight on his hand but the doc saw through the lie.
Marler played the game but cried all the way home – something we learn has been a distressingly common occurrence. He began seeing a psychiatrist, Humphrey, who diagnosed depression and prescribed antidepressants. He has suffered wild mood swings, at times hating rugby and its pressures and accompanying sacrifices, yet at other times relishing the high jinks and energy of a team sport environment.
He has twice retired from Test rugby, in 2016 and 2018, before changing his mind. Even now, in 2021, we feel we still don’t know from one tournament to the next whether he wants to be involved. He missed the Six Nations for family reasons but says he was “a bit gutted” not to be picked for this summer’s Lions tour. On playing form alone, he was good enough to go.
His openness about his dark moods and suicidal thoughts have changed the picture. Previously, his antics, such as his ‘Irish horse’ interview (below), would have burnished his image as a lovable rogue. Now, Marler has become an advocate for the promotion of mental health, as evidenced by his recent Sky documentary Big Boys Don’t Cry.
He concludes the book by voicing his support for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). “I made the mistake of being silent for far too long, thinking I would be showing weakness if I admitted I felt anxious and depressed,” he says. “But men who play rugby… are not immune from feeling low, and there is no shame in seeking help.
“I now check in with the boys, asking questions, making sure they are feeling okay and I’m trying to be a better listener. So if you’re struggling, give CALM a call on 0800 585858. It’s free and confidential. Or if you need advice on how to talk to a mate you’re worried about, visit the CALM website at thecalmzone.net.”
Joe Marler: Loose Head is published by Ebury Press, RRP £20 for the hardback or £8.99 for the paperback. We highly recommend you give it a read.
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