Joe Marler is straining for the appropriate adjective to describe his sport’s attempts at engaging new followers.
“I just think rugby’s… still… stuck,” Marler says. With that, the 31-year-old finds his stride. Gathering impetus, he volunteers a few obstacles to its wider appreciation.
“A classic one is that we haven’t been professional for that long, which is true,” adds Marler.
“The other one is that it is quite a complicated sport, so you get kids into it when they’re young and then have all these rules that you’ve got to teach them.
“I think the biggest one is the toffy, posh, stuffy, traditional view of rugby that it’s white and middle class and only played in private schools or that it’s frowned upon if you express yourself or step out of the team line. That should be flipped.”
There are solutions, too. Marler is an ambassador for Sports Slam, a nationwide initiative masterminded by Sports Direct that aims to increase participation among youngsters. It alarmed him to learn of a survey that found three times as many primary schoolchildren would pick a streaming service over playing sport. He sounds passionate about addressing that trend.
To watch Marler play for Harlequins at the moment, especially in games at The Stoop, is like sitting among an adoring crowd consuming a celebrated comedian’s homecoming gig. Fans are delighted by his idiosyncratic mannerisms and sense of fun. The feeling is infectious and Marler’s form is thriving. He declares himself “fully available” for England’s tour of Australia, should Eddie Jones want him.
Before club matches, Marler has taken to wearing eye-catching tracksuits. He was the cover star of last month’s Rugby World magazine, a dedicated style issue. Marler does not suppress his personality and is evidently more comfortable for that.
“I remember watching The Last Dance,” he continues, highlighting the 2020 Netflix documentary that followed Michael Jordan’s years with Chicago Bulls.
“With basketball in the late 90s and early 00s, you had everyone expressing themselves through their clothing, through their attitudes, through their words in interviews. If they’re feeling comfortable, they go out on court and play the game the way they want to play it.
“In this day and age, boys are too scared to do that because they’ve seen boys get burned or they’ve been burned themselves by press, who do have a responsibility to market it in a particular way. It’s an education piece.
“As the top guys in a sport, you have a responsibility to grow it, whether you like it or not, because you’re bearing the fruits of the sport at the top end as a result of it growing. The more it grows, the more you can benefit. Maybe that should be the way it’s spun.”
Marler remembers his first training camp with England over a decade ago. He attended “with a red dot in my hair” and was asked by a coach when he would be visiting the barber’s. Such conservatism, Marler believes, is dangerous.
“It may seem trivial, but it’s not,” he says. “As long as what someone is doing is coming from a place of love and what they are doing is not detracting from the team or affecting them game at the weekend… you encourage your kids to be themselves and enjoy themselves. That should come through into sport.”
‘I want Marcus Smith to enjoy every second by expressing himself’
According to Marler, mentoring greener team-mates is “one of the biggest drivers” for him to keep playing. To illustrate as much, he reaches for a comparison between two prominent fly-halves.
“It’s not fair for me to use him as an example but Jonny Wilkinson had an incredible career and has spoken about how much of it he did not enjoy. I want Marcus Smith to have all the highs, if not more, that Jonny had, and to enjoy every second of it by doing what he wants to do and expressing himself.”
To rugby union’s laws, then, which prove the scourge of many aficionados. Marler’s view is that technical nuance can wait. Recently, he has come across impressive youth coaches that agree.
“They introduce core skills for rugby without the ball-ache of going ‘we need eight in a scrum and then you’ve got to be back five meters and then there’s something called a caterpillar ruck and you’ve got to stop them kicking but you’re not allowed to climb over it’. It’s like jeez, I just want to have fun.”
The slight contradiction here is that Marler has developed into a grizzled prop that revels in the darkest art of scrummaging and routinely outmanoeuvres less experienced adversaries. At first, he summons the name of a renowned front-rower who played at Premiership level for Gloucester until the age of 38: “Are you saying I’ve turned into Andy Deacon?” After a moment, the faux-protest turns to pride.
“Now that I stop and think about it, I do relish it,” Marler admits of set-piece duels. “I love it. I love seeing young opposition boys coming through as well, getting one up on me, trying their hardest, not getting one up on me. I love the battle of it.”
Harlequins’ 29-24 win over Wasps in February brought an archetypal moment of Marler mischief. As a scrum was setting, he reached out and stroked the head of Biyi Alo, his opposite man.