On the pitch, Joe Marler’s bravery has never been in doubt. The Harlequins, Lions and England forward has no less than 71 caps, including a hugely successful 2019 Japan World Cup tour (after a disastrous 2015 outing, England were phenomenal, thumping Australia, dramatically beating the All Blacks in the semi final, only to be sadly unlocked by South Africa in the final).
But it’s away from the field that the 6ft 30-year-old has shown incredible courage, first by accepting that his mental health was in rapid decline, then seeking professional help and ultimately sharing that difficult process with the world through his new book, Loose Head. Most professional athletes, of course, tend to wait until they are free of clause-binding contracts and daily contact with team-mates before they write their autobiographies, which begs the question...
Does everyone think that you’ve now retired?
Well I did Good Morning Britain the other day with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, and both of them called me the ‘former England player’. But unless Eddie Jones has been on the phone to everyone to say ‘I’m getting rid of him’, I’m not retired yet.
You still have to go to work and face all the people in your book. Have you upset anyone?
Erm, no, I don’t think I have. There’s a decent nickname section in there, but I cleared those with the players first. Actually I said, ‘Look, there’s no getting away from these, they are your nicknames, it’s not like I’m lying or anything’. Rugby is a very small world when it comes down to it, and I don’t see any benefit throwing people under the bus, even if you didn’t get on with them. It’s more funny anecdotes and some insights into my life.
Did anyone insist you didn’t mention them?
There were a couple of messages that came my way, but they were mainly calling me a poor man’s James Haskell, which really upset me, being put in that same bracket of relentless self-promotion, but nah, it’s all fun and games. There’s nothing really controversial in there.
Nothing really controversial? There’s an entire story about a man watching you have a poo during a random urine sample test.
Well who doesn’t love the occasional poo story? I mean, it’s a niche market I guess, but that’s the truth behind some of the drugs testing that takes place in our sport.
Your book is out the same week as Haskell’s. You’re both competitive men, are you watching to see who sells the most?
It was very poor planning on our part to come out at the same time as James, but no, that’s not for me. It’s very hard to compete with a social media king, an I’m A Celebrity contestant with half a million followers and endless amounts of ability to self-promote. He could sell anything, but for me it was never about trying to sell the most books, or trying to beat James. It was about getting my teeth into something different and use it as a cathartic tool to talk about some different bits and bobs. If I can have some fun along the way promoting it with James, then everyone’s a winner.
Do you have any ambitions to follow James into the world of reality television? Can you see yourself on I’m A Celebrity doing…
…Not a chance mate! I’m claustrophobic for starters. If I need to be sent for an MRI scan I have to have the open one for the larger people who don’t fit in normal ones, plus I need to be heavily medicated to keep me in there. So there’s no way in hell I’m getting in a coffin with a load of snakes and rats, I couldn’t think of anything worse. But do I think about life after rugby? Yeah, it’s something my wife and I are doing now because the career is coming to an end very soon and there’s still the rest of our lives to work out how to put food on the table.
You clearly have had huge support from your wife throughout your career. Is there a sense of paying things back when you retire?
One hundred percent, but it’s not as simple as paying it back. The career comes with a lot of benefits, it’s put a lovely roof over our heads and provided for three wonderful kids, but I’m very aware of how much I’ve put on her and appreciate that her support has always been there. It’s about the next chapter, I don’t want it to continue being just about me. It’s about us, it’s always been about us, and that’s something we are looking to do sooner rather than later.
Why the book now when you have so many other duties and obligations? Why not just wait until retirement?
Well I wanted to see if I could write a book to begin with, but also because of the period I was going through I decided it might be a good opportunity to promote mental health. Things are getting better, and more people are talking about it, but we definitely need to kick on and end the stigma and taboo around it.
Do you think rugby understands the challenges of mental health, or is it not until big men like yourself put their hands up and say ‘help’ that they pay attention?
We are moving in the right direction. Rugby is one of the most macho sports out there and when people start crying and talking about their emotions, it’s kind of like, ‘That’s a weakness! We don’t talk about that. We are big tough men. We build stuff! We make fire! We show no weakness here’.
And I agree that there is a time and a place to show no weakness. You don’t want five men running up to a line-out crying their eyes out and discussing their feelings, but away from the game we can chat to each other and end the stigma that talking about your feelings is wrong.
Were you the last person to realise you were unwell?
Ha, I like that you put it like that. Everyone around me saying, ‘Oh, this boy is definitely crazy’. I guess I was living up to the bravado of it all, the pantomime villain and fake tough guy, because to be quite honest I wasn’t aware I had depression. What the fuck did I have to be depressed about? But I was stuck in the fog, losing control, having dark thoughts and really struggling, and finally I managed to pluck up the courage to say ‘enough is enough’ and get to a position where I can now sit here and openly and comfortably talk about it.
You talk in your book of your role models as a young player and they were all the hard drinking tour legends. Do you think the younger players now aspire to be like you?
If they are then this sport is going down the toilet quicker than I thought it was going. There are far better professionals out there that the next generation should be looking up to. But if I can work on my self-awareness, and help the youngsters move forward with their careers, then that’s what I want to do. But I would highly recommend they look elsewhere for role models.
Do you think you’re the last of the big characters in rugby?
I hope not. Things have definitely changed through social media. Players are too scared to show their true personality for fear of being judged. ‘Oh he’s joking too much, he doesn’t care about winning.’ It’s that immediate feedback that makes the boys worried. They think one bad comment is what everyone thinks. Players just need to stop worrying and be comfortable in their own skin. You should measure yourself by your partner, wife, whatever. If they turn around and say ‘Mate, you sound like a helmet and you’re coming across like a bit of a bell-end,’ then you can measure things by that.
Do you take on the trolls?
If they come at me particularly hard, I’ll try my hardest to come back with a witty line. My usual go-to response is a mum joke. The club still ring me up and say, ‘Come on mate, you know you shouldn’t be fighting with the fans like that,’ but it’s just a bit of fun.
Finally, if there is one thing you could remove from the modern game, what would it be?
Ah clever, very clever. I can’t say referees can I? That would be carnage. I would remove the choke tackle law, I’m not having it, it’s a terrible law that needs changing immediately. But I’ve rarely been listened to in my career and I don’t expect to be listened to now, so it’s pretty pointless me giving you an opinion on that I’m afraid.