Joe Marler reveals how he unravelled mentally

‘I’d wonder if I could feign an injury or do something stupid to get a ban’: England prop Joe Marler details how he unravelled mentally as he reflects on grabbing Alun Wyn Jones’ tackle and the fall out from ‘Gypsygate’

  • Joe Marler reveals how he fell out of love with rugby and struggled mentally
  • The stigma concerning mental health in rugby is now beginning to alter
  • Marler says that he grabbed Alun Wyn Jones’ private parts to wind him up 
  • After calling Samson Lee a ‘gypsy boy’, Marler feared that he would go to jail 

The pressure of professionalism is a huge problem in rugby, one that should have been brought into the spotlight long before it was.

Look at Jonny Wilkinson. When he won the World Cup in 2003 the joy had gone. Jonny had always suffered with anxiety, which grew and grew until the worry and pressure he put himself under left precious little space for enjoyment of the game, even when he was lifting the World Cup.

I can identify. I’ve looked at kids in the crowd during big games, at the excitement on their face, a look that says, I want to do what you do. Deep down, I know how lucky I am to be playing out my own childhood dream. 

Joe Marler has recalled that he’d wonder if he could feign an injury so he could go off early

I’m in an incredibly privileged position to play rugby for a living, yet I’m wondering if I can feign an injury to get off early. 

Do something stupid to get myself a ban. Because I’m so f****** knackered and fed up, the same physical punishment, putting my body into a human vice made up of 300-stone of knuckle and muscle. I’m thinking, F*** this. 

The former Wasps lock Kearnan Myall – a 6ft 7in Yorkshireman I played alongside for England on our 2013 tour of Argentina – says intolerable pressure and scrutiny took him to the brink of suicide. 

He was in Dubai, standing on the wrong side of his hotel balcony, 15 storeys up, when one of his Wasps team-mates grabbed him and dragged him back. 

Kearnan Myall says that intolerable pressure and scrutiny took him to the brink of suicide

When reflecting on it, he said the ‘horrific’ training he did with the England Under 18s was a contributory factor to his mental state. 

The camps made him not want to play rugby any more and his negative reaction to the camps made others perceive him as being mentally weak.

There’s a theory that we’re seeing such a tsunami of mental health issues in my generation of players because we were coached by men who came from the amateur era. 

I think it holds some water. Their old-school attitude was ‘you need to be tough and macho, show no weakness’ – arguably much easier for them than it is for us. Training was a part-time release from their ‘real’ job, not their whole life. 

How are players now supposed to stay unwaveringly tough and strong as standards continue to rise and training gets more intense? Players get bigger, faster, better and stronger while injuries increase exponentially. How do players be mentally unflappable when you’re thousands of miles from home, missing your family for months on end and playing 30 or more games a year?

It is difficult to stay committed to the cause when you are being heavily criticised online

How do players stay robotically strong and committed to the cause when you have a bad day at the office and the keyboard trolls call you out for being a fat w*****, a useless piece of s***? 

Of course, amateur-era players weren’t immune from mental-health problems. 

Taboo and stigma conspired to keep them underground and the old boys played along and put on a brave face. A couple of years ago a Rugby Players’ Association survey of retired players showed that more than six out of 10 had experienced some sort of mental health problem in their career. Nearly half of those had played for their country. 

Thankfully, awareness is growing now, with more players speaking out and clubs, from grassroots level right to the top, addressing mental health issues and offering support and advice. 

I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide when facing a charge for kicking Arnaud Heguy 

Unfortunately, there was much less awareness when things started to unravel for me. I didn’t even realise I had any mental health issues, let alone that I should be discussing them.

When I was facing a disciplinary charge for a little kick in the head to Grenoble’s Arnaud Heguy, all I wanted to do was crawl under a rock and hide from everything. 

I walked into the hearing, my mood dragging on the floor. There were three people sitting on the panel and I looked at them in turn. Then I took a very deep breath and made a decision that came from nowhere. 

I’m not just going to apologise and keep my mouth shut, I thought. I’m going to be straight with them. 

When it was my turn to speak I started to tell the panel how I’d fallen out of love with rugby, that I’d been under a huge amount of pressure and that I couldn’t get my head around the media. 

I was unravelling mentally and hiding behind the red mist, which is a key part of the game

‘I was getting a lot of flak from the Grenoble players about my previous ban, which I fully expected,’ I said. ‘But it wasn’t just that they wound me up. There is more to it than that.’

I took a drink of water. You could hear a pin drop. ‘I’m struggling, you see,’ I said. ‘I don’t like the sport at the moment and I feel in a dark place.’

The members of the panel looked taken aback. This was clearly not what they expected of ‘bad boy Marler’, a player they no doubt had down as your archetypal meathead thug.

When I was called back in, the head of the panel acknowledged my honesty and the fact that I’d clearly been struggling.

I was told I was being given a reduced two-week ban because of what I had shared – and the panel recommended I seek help.

Part of me wanted a bigger ban so that I could be away from the game for a longer period

I appreciated that they had listened to me. The reduced ban was a result but there was a part of me that wanted an even bigger ban so I could be away from the game for longer. I took the panel’s advice and saw a sports psychologist, briefly. He focused on teaching me coping mechanisms to stop me losing my temper and lashing out. 

The trouble was, the Heguy head-kick was not the red mist moment everyone assumed it to be. It was a despondent, lacklustre flick of my foot. More of a red flag moment than a red mist one.    

I was unravelling, mentally. I don’t blame the panel or the sports psychologist for not realising that, because I didn’t really get it myself. I was in denial, hiding behind the red mist. And because the red mist is such an intrinsic part of the game, that’s an incredibly easy thing for a rugby player to do. 

Night out that beggars belief

I made the most of every minute of the Lions tour to New Zealand. One night I decided to take myself out of our Wellington hotel very late at night. The harbour was deserted, which was perfect, as I’d been on the beers with the boys and didn’t want to run into anyone – least of all any rugby fans who might recognise me.

I sat myself down on the harbour wall and tucked into a packet of Quavers and then decided to have a sneaky fag as I sat there looking out to sea. I made myself more comfortable, I thought I might just shut my eyes for a minute or two.

All of a sudden I heard something in the distance. I saw a couple of lads and a girl walking in my direction, chattering away. S***.

Durign the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017 I was mistaken for a homeless person 

I couldn’t risk being recognised. I was sprawled on the floor, fag end at my side, crisp crumbs down my top and smelling of beer. There was nothing for it but to hold my position. I pulled my hood up and told myself not to worry, they wouldn’t recognise me.

I stayed very still trying to be as invisible as possible. Then the footsteps stopped right in front of me.

My heart lurched. ‘Clink-clink!’ It was the unmistakeable sound of coins hitting the pavement. I didn’t move a muscle as I listened to the sound of their footsteps fade away.

I tentatively pushed back my hood and there it was – enough money for me to buy a cup of tea and a sandwich. F*** me, they thought I was a hobo!

I only tickled Alun Wyn Jones’ tackle to wind him up

I thought I knew exactly how far I could push my luck. Especially when it came to the rugby player’s favourite wind-up of all – giving a cheeky tweak to a player’s meat and two veg. 

Players have been flicking each other in the balls on and off the pitch for as long as anyone can remember. When I was touring with the Lions in 2017 a couple of the lads would always flick me in the groin when we were going down the tunnel. It became a custom, a bit of silly laddish bonding. 

When you do it to your opposite number on the pitch, however, it’s all about winding him up, gaining a psychological advantage. You never go in hard, never inflict pain. 

I grabbed Alun Wyn Jones’ private parts during the game v Wales in order to wind him up

You want to mess with his concentration. That was my plan with Alun Wyn Jones when we played Wales earlier this year. A scuffle kicked off between a few players after 10 minutes. I was miffed. It was holding up the game. 

I saw Alun Wyn go into the melee again. There was more pushing and shoving. It was getting boring now. F*** it. I’ll play Jones at his own game, do something to distract him. 

I’d been on the p*** with him during the Lions tour in 2017 and got to know him quite well. I thought I’d just do something silly and make him laugh. Simple. I walked calmly in and gave his tackle a gentle tickle. It was something he did to me once on the Lions tour. 

I wasn’t in the least bit worried about how he’d take it. I knew he’d laugh. He did not laugh. He just looked at the touch judge as if to say, ‘Sir? Urgh!’ It was more for the officials’ benefit because he was really bothered. The situation was defused, we played on and won the game and the Triple Crown. I paraded around the pitch, drinking in the glory, having played well. I didn’t have a care in the world. 

Alun Wyn Jones didn’t laugh but later said he was under pressure from World Rugby to make a stand

After the match I had a pint with Jones and he wasn’t worried, which didn’t surprise me. Why would he be? It was only later that he tipped me off that he was under pressure from World Rugby to make a stand. 

It had become a huge story. Headlines everywhere, #fondlegate trending on Twitter. Some saying it was genius, others that I’d committed an assault. I hoped for a misconduct charge, a slap on the wrist for inappropriate behaviour and a short ban. 

That was dim of me. World Rugby did not have rules about touching another player’s tackle, so they used the rule for ‘grabbing, twisting or squeezing the genitals’, for which the shortest ban was 12 weeks. In the end I got a ‘reduced’ ban of 10 weeks, after making an apology. Huge lesson learned.   

Gypsygate row got so bad I thought I’d might go to jail 

I’d made a big mistake calling Samson Lee ‘Gypsy boy’ in the England vs Wales game in 2016.

It didn’t matter his team-mates called him Gypsy boy. I’d called him that name with the sole purpose of p***ing him off and throwing him off his game. That was wrong of me.

The Six Nations committee handed me a misconduct charge, which I deserved. I was trolled online and accused of being racist, which rattled me to the core.

Calling Wales’ Samson Lee (centre) ‘Gypsy boy’ during a game in 2016 was a major mistake 

Eddie Jones was put under pressure to drop me from the England squad. We had the decider against France and were on our way to winning our first Grand Slam since 2003. But Eddie didn’t bow to outside pressure and didn’t drop me. That was a huge relief and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

The game was one of the highlights of my career. We thoroughly deserved to beat the French by 10 points. We played great rugby that day.

I am proud of the part I played. I know I turned up and did my job well, and if I’d missed out on that opportunity I’d have been absolutely heartbroken.

I was ecstatic. The beer started to flow and we had one hell of a night celebrating in Paris. I forgot all about the hideous circus that had followed me for the past couple of weeks.

I assumed I’d be allowed to move on. It wasn’t to be. The trolling over Gypsygate hadn’t stopped, it had escalated. It was off the scale.

World Rugby had got involved because of the continued furore, and they decided that the Six Nations committee hadn’t done enough with the misconduct charge. I was summoned to a disciplinary hearing in Canary Wharf, where I had to face three top sports lawyers who were flown in from around the world to ‘prosecute’ me.

It was a surreal and terrifying ordeal, listening to their discussion of other instances of racism at the top level of sport. I didn’t recognise myself in the same category as the other offenders but I had to accept that was where I’d stupidly landed myself.

It was hard to listen to. I was sweating and shaking, and at one point it all sounded so gravely serious that I thought I might be sent to jail. The upshot was my huge £20,000 fine, plus a two-week ban.

I feared I might go to jail due to the incident but got a £2,000 fine and a 20-week ban

I’d much rather have had a £2,000 fine and a 20-week ban – I was in desperate need of a break – but I couldn’t and wouldn’t appeal. I’d promised on Twitter I’d take whatever rap came my way, and I had to stand by my word.

Even at the best of times it was hard for Daisy being married to me. She was doing too much on her own, too much of the time. All because of me and my ridiculous job.

Why was I so selfish, putting my career above being a good husband and father? It wasn’t fair. I’d caused so much stress and upheaval and I wasn’t helping her the way I should. I knew that, but I couldn’t lift myself out of it. I’d fret and panic and then shut down as I tried to block it all out. It was a horrible cycle.

Now I’d brought the whole Gypsygate s*** storm down on us, just when I had something wonderful to celebrate.

For weeks our lives were turned upside down. I was moody and withdrawn, blaming myself and seething about the enormous fine. People were slagging me off on the radio and on TV. I was starting to feel like the whole world was against me. There’s no textbook that tells a rugby player how to deal with this. I was feeling my way through it – and not doing very well. 

●Loose Head: Confessions of an (un)professional rugby player by Joe Marler, published by Ebury Press on 1st October. © Joe Marler, 2020. 

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