There is a brief flash of chaos in the Marler household. Two of his children, Jasper and Maggie, have just been dropped off at school and his wife Daisy is rounding up their youngest, Felix, for a trip to the supermarket.
It is the morning rush hour. Joe Marler is trying to get to grips with the coffee machine and their eight-week old puppy, Ziggy, is tearing across the kitchen with a chewed-up bandage.
‘Why couldn’t we just do this over f**king Zoom?’ quips Marler, attempting to regain control of the hot drinks. ‘Isn’t everything done over Zoom these days?’
Joe Marler opens up to Sportsmail about mental health and other career challenges
The 30-year-old prop has played 66 times for England and has represented the Lions
We are here to talk about mental health. I argue that the sensitivities of the subject are better discussed in person.
‘That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?’ he replies. ‘Everyone thinks mental health is a “sensitive subject”, so they’re too scared to talk about it. It’s like it’s some kind of taboo.
‘People suddenly start walking on eggshells the moment mental health gets mentioned. There are a lot of people sat at home depressed because they think we shouldn’t be talking about it.’
Marler, 30, finishes pouring the coffees before taking a seat. He has been working on his ‘latte art’ skills. ‘The real reason we’re not on Zoom is because you wanted a free f**king coffee, didn’t you?’ he says, handing over a flat white with a splattered milk finish on the top layer of foam. ‘This one’s the, erm, star constellation pattern.’
It is Marler’s first interview since pre-lockdown. He has a new look. He shaved off his thinning trademark Mohawk during the Six Nations and he now has a full head of conventional hair. Has he decided to leave his rebellious streak behind? It is an impressive transformation and attention is drawn towards his bandana.
‘Spit it out, mate,’ he says, before pausing. ‘You think I’ve had my lid done, don’t you? You think I’ve had a bloody hair transplant! There’s no way I’d shell out 10-grand for a hair transplant with all the COVID pay cuts.
Joe Marler has a new look, he has shaved off the mohawk and has a full head of hair
‘The only way I’d get a hair transplant is if it were free as some part of advertising deal… have you seen me advertising hair transplants? No. Lockdown happened and my hair started growing back… magically.
‘Don’t worry, there’s another Mohawk on the horizon. I’m just letting it grow out first. I’ve never had a punk hair-gel Mohawk. That could be a bit of weapon in the scrums, couldn’t it?’
The radical haircuts are more than just a fashion statement. They are part of Marler’s DNA. They have been a key feature of the hard man image, alongside the tattoos and huge physique that has defined his career.
‘If you’re going to put yourself out there with a red Mohawk and white boots, you’ve got to make sure you perform,’ he says. ‘Otherwise you’re just that knob with the s**t hair. The Mohawk was a way of finding my feet in a sport where most of the guys were from private schools.
‘I had a chip on my shoulder. I thought, “I’m going to prove a point here and I’m going to do it looking like a tw*t”. I never wanted to just go along with the norm and do as I was told.’
His talent, appearance and unpredictable personality have always stood out. But there is more to him than meets the eye. Marler’s machismo image, as he is about to reveal, has been a cover-up job.
‘There was this moment when I was younger,’ he begins. ‘I was 19, new on the scene and we had a game against Northampton. I went down for a scrum against Brian Mujati and I heard Phil Dowson on the flank going, “Oh, here he is, the bipolar kid, he’ll struggle today”.
‘My head was gone as soon as I heard that. Bang. I was thinking, “What? How the f**k does he know what I’m like?”. I lost the plot and I couldn’t focus for the rest of the game.
Marler believes his hairstyles in the past have meant he has to perform or he’ll ‘look like a tw*t’
‘We were shaking hands at the end of the game and I said to him, “Here, where’s that chat come from? What’s the craic there?” Dows knew Ian Peel, who had coached me at age-group level. He just said, “Oh, Peeley mentioned how you’re a bit up and down, mate, so I saw it as an opportunity”.
‘He wasn’t wrong. I did blow hot and cold. Those particular comments didn’t really affect me — I always got on with Dows — but they stuck with me. Rugby is such a macho, alpha-male dominated sport and you don’t want to expose yourself. You don’t want people thinking, “This bloke’s weak as p*ss, he talks about his feelings, he’ll crumble, let’s get into him”.
‘I didn’t want my struggles with mental health to provide the opposition with an advantage. After that game, there was this worry that I could be exposed, so I tried to become this fake tough guy.
‘I made a thing out of telling people to p*ss off. The scary haircuts and everything else were just part of this persona of, “F**k you lot, I’m all right, I don’t cry, I don’t kiss or cuddle”.’
It is an image that his friends and family were less familiar with. It was not the Marler they knew and loved. ‘I would always think in two different worlds: the real world and the fake rugby world,’ he says. ‘The rugby world was a fake character. It wasn’t real life.’
He kept the two worlds separate. So far apart that he was prepared to drive 140 miles to and from Harlequins training every day. But eventually the two worlds collided.
Marler (left, below) says he was teased by Phil Dowson (right, below) about his mental health
‘For a few years, I was able to park things,’ he says. ‘Take the 2015 World Cup… we bombed out miserably, which was obviously dark, but I could come home to the real world to be a dad and a husband. No one died. Park it.’
Then came ‘Gypsygate’ when he targeted Wales prop Samson Lee with the insult in a Six Nations match in 2016.
‘Then things were different,’ he says. ‘Usually, you punch someone, you get a ban and you go back to real life. This was different. I came away from that rugby world but everywhere I went, it was always, “You’re a racist”, “You’re a piece of sh*t”. My family would hear it. Suddenly those two worlds merged and I couldn’t get away from it.
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‘I had a meltdown. It was just engulfing me. I’m not a racist. I’ll tell you again: I’m 100 per cent not a racist. But the more people say, “You’re a racist”, “You’re a piece of sh*t”, the more you start to question yourself. Suddenly I’m thinking, “Am I actually a bad person?”
‘It came to a head when England were going to tour Australia in 2016. We had a camp in Brighton. I just thought, “I don’t want to be here any more. I can’t be doing with this sh*t. What’s the point?”
‘I was getting real world sh*t, as opposed to fake rugby stuff. I could see it affecting my wife and my family and I thought, “Screw this, I can’t do this any more”. I couldn’t be arsed with it and I went down after the first tackle in training, saying my calf was tight.
‘The physio was like, “It seems all right, mate?” I was just looking for a way out. I sat down with the same physio and told him, “I hate it. I just want to get away to the middle of nowhere, jack it in and escape”.
Marler claims the ‘scary haircuts’ were just part of a persona of telling people to ‘p*** off’
‘I wanted to be there but I didn’t have the tools to be there. I was like a walking contradiction. I chatted to Eddie Jones in the bar and he said, ‘Good on ya, all the best’. I thought that would be the last time I spoke to him.
‘I got in the car to drive home from Brighton and just felt this massive rush. I rang Dais and said, “I’m on my way home, I’ve told them I’m not doing it any more”. Tears were rolling down my face and I balled my eyes out with relief.
‘I watched that tour as a fan and there were parts of me that still wished I was there. But there were bigger parts of me that thought, “No, I’m good now”. The thing is… it was just a quick fix.’
Marler pauses for a sip of his coffee. He has been joined on the sofa by his dogs. His leg is propped up in a recovery pump, easing an accumulation of blood that has discoloured around his knee. Evidently, rugby’s toll has been physical as well as mental.
‘It’s called a Morel-Lavallee injury,’ he digresses, briefly. ‘Sounds like a type of ice cream, doesn’t it? Would you like a flake with that? They drained it with a few syringes and I’ve basically been left with club foot.
‘Maybe best to wash your hands if the dog brings you that bandage, by the way, because it’s been wrapped around my gammy leg. COVID ‘n’ all that.’
Back to mental health. Marler, in the past, has been an expert at wriggling out of uncomfortable questions with a quick joke or a daft story. Here he is fully engaged. Nothing is off the table as he explains how his world became consumed by negative thoughts.
Marler was part of ‘Gypsygate’ when he targeted Wales prop Samson Lee with an insult in 2016
‘That stuff didn’t really rear its head again until March 2019,’ he says. ‘I’d gone back into the England set-up, then retired again. The fake world was starting to cross back into the real world. I’d become despondent at home. Not talking.
‘I was driving to work every morning, putting the radio on and crying. I was having these thoughts: “You’re pathetic. What are you doing here? What’s the point of it all?”. Not just the point of rugby… the point of life. It was a case of, “F**k it all”. There were times when I thought, “What would it be like if I wasn’t here?”
He added: ‘More and more, I was finding myself without a purpose. I had a wife, my kids and I’d say to myself, “They don’t need me, their mum’s incredible, they’d be all right on their own”. Those thoughts filled me with shame and guilt. They were thoughts that would leave the people closest to me in the lurch.
‘I was consuming myself with it. Next, I’d ask, “Why am I feeling like this? I’ve got so many good things going for me. A wonderful wife, wonderful kids, a roof over my head, a career”.
‘I’d be saying, “How ungrateful are you, you piece of sh*t.” It was a constant battle in my head for quite some time. One day, I was out in the car with Dais and I ran over a squirrel.
‘That’s when everything just exploded. A row broke out and I had a full meltdown back at home.’
Red mist descended. Daisy took refuge upstairs as Marler smashed up the kitchen.
Marler revealed how the Gypsygate saga made him fall out of love with rugby in the aftermath
‘You see the knuckle here,’ he says, drawing attention to the fifth metacarpal on his right hand. ‘They call it boxer’s knuckle. It’s a common injury when you’re a sh*t puncher and you glance, rather than connect. That door just around the corner… I put my fist right through it. I thought, “F**k this, I’m gone” and stormed out.
‘Daisy was seven months pregnant. I lost control and I was happy to just walk out… that was me gone. Those things weren’t supposed to happen in the real world. That was my most shameful moment.’
There was little time to reflect and reconcile. The following morning, Marler was due in for a Harlequins match against Saracens at the Olympic Stadium. His fist remained painful.
‘It was broken,’ he says. ‘I told the doctor that I’d dropped a weight on it. He knew I was lying. I could tell he was concerned and I broke down in front of him.
‘He realised he needed to intervene and he put me in touch with an independent clinical psychiatrist. My behaviour had been affecting the team and everyone else, but I had a complete lack of self-awareness. One minute I was buzzing, full of energy and the next minute I was f**king poisonous.
‘I’d tried a couple of sports psychologists before, but that wasn’t what I needed. It was just patching over the cracks. Seeing the clinical psychiatrist was a big moment for me.
‘Delving deeper into underlying issues, exploring the mind and realising how you can get help with that.
The prop also claimed that rugby took its toll on his physical health rather than his mental one
‘Counselling, life coaches, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy. That was the start of me getting a better understanding. I realised they’re not separate worlds. The more help I got, the more I got to grips with it, the better I felt.’
It was a new world, outside of Marler’s comfort zone, that he had never explored.
‘Originally there was a suggestion I was bipolar,’ he says. ‘There was something in the psychiatrist’s report but he said, “No, I don’t think he presents as a manic depressive or bipolar, I think he’s dealing with depression”. I said, “What do you mean, depression?” Someone will be reading this thinking, “Bloody hell, mate, what have you got to be depressed about? There’s some poor sod on the dole because of COVID, a single mum, lost her grandparents who’s getting on with it and not sitting there with depression. Stuff your sob story”.
‘I fully get that. I was consumed with the similar guilt of, “Why the f**k am I feeling like this?” The reality is that it can affect anyone. I explored the chemical side of the brain and they said that I should take anti-depressants.’
Initially, Marler battled with himself about the stigma of medication. ‘I didn’t want anti-depressants,’ he says. ‘I thought, “I don’t need f**king pills… I don’t want to rely on pills… that’s weak… I want to be able to sort it out for myself”.
The doctor spoke to me and said, “If you’ve got a virus, do you take antibiotics?” I said, “Er, yeah”. So he explained how antibiotics build up white blood cells, or whatever, to help cure you.
‘He said that’s exactly how you should look at anti-depressants. I was taking them like an antibiotic, while doing CBT to help put the processes in place. It suddenly made perfect sense. It didn’t feel like a weakness any more.’
The England player admitted that he questioned his ability which affected his career
Marler began feeling better and, for the second time, was offered the chance to return to the England squad for the World Cup in Japan.
‘The anti-depressants were pre-World Cup and during the World Cup,’ he says. ‘There were a lot of questions when I went back into camp. Some of the older boys were asking, “Why?” and I said we’d talk about it another time.
‘It was back to that contradiction because I’d realised the importance of talking but I wasn’t happy to talk about it with my team-mates. I didn’t want them worrying during a World Cup thinking, “Lads, is Marler all right?” There is no weakness in talking but at the time — rightly or wrongly — I just didn’t go there.
‘Instead, I just spoke to the team doctor because he had to know about the medication side of things. Have you ever tried to get anti-depressants into Japan?
‘Jesus! They are strict as f**k! I had someone there who was aware of things and there for me to speak to.
‘That World Cup was one of the best experiences of my life. Yes, the goal was to win it but I still had an unbelievable time.
‘We lost the final but some of the best experiences in life are not pleasurable, pleasant, positive or successful. My wife and my favourite kid had flown out, too, and they loved it. We all loved it.’
He backtracks for a moment.
‘That’s a joke, by the way. The two other kids were too young. I don’t have a favourite. They only read the Guardian and the FT, anyway, so they won’t see this.’
Marler also admitted he ran over a squirrel and broke his hand by smashing through a door
‘Anyway, in my head, I was asking myself whether I would still be having this unbelievable time without these tablets. I got home and I told myself, “Right, I’m fixed, so I’ll can these anti-depressants and no more talking to my shrink, because I’m f**king back on the horse!”.
‘But those two weeks after the World Cup sent me spiralling back out of control. Once again, I started questioning myself: was it because I’d come off the drugs, or was it just the post-World Cup comedown?
‘All the boys have the post-World Cup blues. It’s normal. You get used to this regimented lifestyle, then it suddenly stops and you’re there thinking, “What time am I getting up tomorrow?”
‘It turned out you shouldn’t ever stop taking anti-depressants straight away. You should taper off. I spoke to the doc, got back on them and I started feeling good again.’
And does he still take them to this day?
‘Yeah, I do. What about yourself? Ever struggled with depression? What about you, Hoops [the photographer]? Do you want to talk about it? The shoe’s on the other foot now, isn’t it, you swines.
‘Everyone has some form of sadness, don’t they? Just to varying degrees. You shouldn’t be worried to say so if you’re feeling a bit sh*t. That’s the stigma we need to get rid of.
‘Depression is different because you feel like you can’t get out of it and you’re constantly in the fog, but speaking about it doesn’t make you weak. It’s a positive step.
Marler admitted that life coaching sessions and therapy has helped him through this struggle
‘You can still have a laugh. I don’t want people whispering, “Oh, don’t take the p*ss out of Joe, don’t make him sad, because he’s on anti-depressants”. F**k that. We’re here now, talking about it and having a laugh, aren’t we Hoops? Hoops? Wake up, Hoops!’
Turning attention to more recent times, life threw Marler another unexpected challenge during the Six Nations. He was caught on camera fondling the testicles of Wales captain Alun Wyn-Jones. The incident exploded and threatened to knock things back off course.
‘There was a similar sort of circus around it,’ he says. ‘I could feel the same sort of emotions as Gypsygate. I thought, “Hang on a minute, I haven’t sexually assaulted someone”. There were moments when I thought, “F**k them, f**k the rugby authorities, f**k the people on Twitter, f**k the media… they’ve all got this wrong”.
‘At times, I was in denial and refused to accept that I’d done anything wrong. There was a little flicker where I thought, “Maybe I’ll just pack it all in, I can’t be doing with the drama”. But it’s that same contradiction, as I love the drama.
‘Eventually, I accepted that it was wrong and I was in a far better place to cope with it. I listened less to the outside noise. It didn’t take over my life like Gypsygate. It was so polarising that Alun-Wyn was getting as much heat as I was.
‘I sent him a message on WhatsApp and said, “I’m sorry about what happened, mate. I owe you a pint”. He replied saying, “You’re buying mate! You’ve clearly had fair bit of sh*t yourself”.
‘Of course, I regret it. It was one of those brain-fart moments, but it wasn’t a red-mist moment. I was having a laugh with someone who I know well, I thought. It just happened that it was on national TV in front of millions of viewers.
‘But yeah, it was my fault. As soon as I owned that, I was in a position to carry on. There will still be brain-fart moments, but I’m hoping I’ve got a little bit more self-control and structures in place in my own mind to deal with it.
‘Now I feel like I can enjoy things and love the sport, because it’s given me far more than it’s taken away.’