Evening Standard

After England won the Rugby World Cup 12 years ago, they were treated as heroes on their return from Australia with hundreds of thousands of fans hailing them during a victory parade in London.

Should Stuart Lancaster’s men emulate the class of 2003 this autumn one can only imagine the way their triumph will be greeted given that the tournament is in England. After all, Team GB’s success at London 2012 was all the sweeter for it being on these shores.

The public profile of the players will rocket and there will be many chances to embrace the celebrity culture that has boomed in recent years.

But one man who will not do that is Joe Marler and he cannot understand why anyone would want to. In fact, the England and Harlequins prop hates that side of 21st century life so much it is the reason he is now disenchanted with football.

“I was a big Tottenham fan but now I do not follow them,” says the 24-year-old. “I have lost a lot of interest in the way football has gone these days. I think a lot of players like to play football for the celebrity lifestyle. It is not what we play rugby for. In rugby we are in a very privileged position. We are paid to go out and put our bodies on the line and play with our mates. What more do you want? You don’t want the celebrity lifestyle and the b******s that goes with it. We are here to play the game and enjoy ourselves.”

Joe Marler

Joe Marler. Image courtesy of London Evening Standard

Marler has a reputation for waspish one liners. Even then, it is a surprise to hear his response when I ask whether he spent his Christmas thinking of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in September. “No, I thought about what I was going to eat. I spent all of Christmas day eating chocolate yule log.”

Then, with a smile, he says: “This is a massive year for English rugby. A home World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my generation. It is not pressure to play at home, it is an added incentive, a motivation. So many fans, friends and family will be able to come to the games.”

Marler would love to give them all a rugby version of London 2012. “The feeling around the country during the Olympics was unbelievable. I managed to see the Paralympic events and it was phenomenal. It was special to go and watch. I am sure it would have been special to be part of that as an athlete.

“It sounds very cheesy but it does bring people together, makes you feel part of the community. Everyone coming out and saying, ‘did you see that?’ Hopefully, we can have that affect. I am sure we will, especially with the way fans were with us at Twickenham in the autumn. They have been great. The fanfare and excitement surrounding the World Cup is already building. It is hard to ignore.”

Marler cannot ignore the autumn Test defeats against New Zealand (24-21) and South Africa (31-28) but, naturally, prefers to dwell on the 26-17 victory over Australia, who they will face again in the World Cup.

“That was great for us going into a World Cup year,” he says. “We can look back and say we can take these guys on. They have to come to our place. We are going to have our work cut out [at the World Cup]. Every game will be a challenge but we don’t fear any team in the World Cup.”

Marler was 13 when Jonny Wilkinson had his magic moment, winning England the World Cup. Now, as a player himself, Marler does not care how the tournament will be won. “As a kid, I never looked at whether England played great attacking rugby,” he says. “I looked whether England got 17 points and Scotland got 16. And I went, ‘wow’. Winning games is what matters in international rugby, not the style of play.”

Competition for a place in the England front row is fierce but Marler is in possession of the No1 shirt. When I suggest he must be confident of being selected for the World Cup, he says “touch wood”, giving the chair he is sitting on a quick tap. “I would like to be picked but I have no control.”

Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola, rivals for the loosehead slot, have been injured for the autumn internationals and Marler says: “The quality of those two is very high and there are other youngsters coming through: Ross Harrison at Sale, Nick Auterac at Bath. There are plenty of quality loosehead props who can step up.”

“You cannot look too far ahead, otherwise you come unstuck. We have the Six Nations coming up. We want to win the Six Nations but we have got Wales away on a Friday night. I cannot think of many tougher fixtures. If we have a poor Six Nations or poor warm-up games, then the World Cup will not matter. We will go in low in confidence, low in form. The boys will not be happy.”

But before the World Cup, Marler also has to worry about Quins’ performance, where he has had the added responsibility of the captaincy this season. Marler took over from Chris Robshaw at the beginning of the season to give the England captain some rest from club duties in a demanding year. He says, with a laugh, that the role has changed him. “I am learning. Having normally p****d off referees, suddenly I have got to be the one who has to be friendly and set an example. I have got to control myself.”

Quins are currently eighth in the Premiership, a lowly position for a club who have made the play-offs for the last three seasons and were champions in 2012.

“I remember at the start of the year saying I would like us to be consistent. We have been very indifferent.”

Quins are at home to Leicester on Saturday and Marler says: “It is a big match for us and Leicester are playing well at the moment. They have gone back to basics. They trust their set-pieces. They run hard, are very physical and are looking good. Week in, week out we have got to turn up. Have we done that? No.”

Whether Quins will turn up against Leicester remains to be seen but Marler is hopeful that the season can be turned around. “After the Six Nations, I hope we can come back to club rugby and really give it a good crack and see if we can squeeze ourselves into the top four or top six at the very least.”


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