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“We are much better than where we were 20 years ago, but we could do more,” is Joe Marler’s assessment of the current state of rugby’s relationship with mental health. With the inner slings and arrows that the Harlequins and England prop has had to confront – which came to a head in April 2019 after months spent driving into training in tears – his opinion on the subject is one that should be heeded.
“Doing more” as Marler, 30, puts it, is rugby’s greatest challenge because of the incongruity of the differing elements. Confrontation, machismo and chauvinism have always received more head-space among players than emotional expression and openness, with the latter likely to have been interpreted as an admission of weakness in a sport where weakness is poison. Slowly, however, the perception that males will be anything less than alpha if they admit to mental struggles is changing. For evidence of that, one need look no further than Kyle Sinckler pouring his heart out on television on Saturday night following his Lions snub, coupled with the support and outpour of emotion the England prop received from his Bristol coach, Pat Lam, and his former Harlequins team-mate, Ugo Monye.
“Rugby’s an invasion sport isn’t it,” Marler explains. “The whole point is to invade the opposition’s space in any way you can. And usually that involves physicality and trying to bully them. So therefore you are constantly involved in an environment full of men trying to be alpha males on and off the field. If you then felt like you wanted to discuss your feelings or any emotions or any problems or issues that were going on in your life, you’d think twice about doing that in this environment.
“Recently, a couple of team-mates have come up to me and said: ‘Listen, my wife passed on this article you did, I’ve been struggling myself, do you mind if we sit down and have a chat?’ That’s brilliant. Let’s sit down, grab a coffee and talk things over.
“I reckon there’s more out there that don’t want to come forward and open up. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’ve set a tone recently and they’ve thought: ‘I can’t talk to you because I think you’re a w-----.’ When you’ve been a w----- for so long, then you try and be something else, people think, ‘hang on, I don’t believe you. You’ve been a helmet and this seems really fake.’ You have to try and change that perception.
“It’s much better than where we were 20 years ago, and it’s better than where we were five years ago because more boys are starting to open up and understand the need to balance all the off-field stuff to help with the on-field stuff.”
Someone who understands that balance is Warren Gatland. The Lions head coach waxed lyrical this week about how protecting players’ mental health this summer, on a tour full of quarantines and Covid bubbles, will be paramount. Gatland also stated that 2017’s squad choir sessions, an activity into which Marler dips his toe on an upcoming documentary about his mental-health toils, will be making a welcome return.
Marler was a high-profile admission from Gatland’s squad but knows better than anyone how the thought of being under hotel arrest could affect someone struggling with their mental health; the loosehead abstained from England’s Six Nations camp this year in order to remain with his young family. And he has some advice for Gatland.
“Maybe it would be worth taking an extra member of staff who is suited in the (mental-health) sphere,” Marler says. “It would be a very good idea. If they’re not going to take someone qualified, they definitely need to have a conversation as a whole touring party at the start. Lions tours are tough enough as they are, being away from your families, but this one is in particular. You could nominate guys to be available to check in for a chat, but they’ve got games to think about.
“Off the top of my head, there have been a couple of sports psychologists on tours but they tend to be focused around the performance side of this. They’re not qualified in the clinical side of things.”
In his own battle, Marler credits former Harlequins head of rugby, Paul Gustard, for helping him confront his issues. There was another unlikely ally, too.
“Looking back at it, but Eddie Jones, back in 2016 when I first stepped away from the England set-up, I remember sitting down and having a conversation with him in Brighton, and seeing that sort of human side to him in understanding where I was at, was massive,” Marler adds. “And then seeing it again in 2018, when I stepped away again, was also massive in that he understood and was there to say: ‘Look, what can I do to help, can we get anyone involved to help you?’ He has always been massively receptive when I have spoken to him about it.”
“It’s huge. Especially when I had an opinion of him, prior to opening up to him, of this hard-core, in-your-face, take-no-s---… he would probably have been the last person I’d have thought of to understand that I needed some time away to work out what was going on. I thought that it would be: ‘Mate, f--- off, the door’s f------ closed for you now, f---!’ But to see that human side to him meant a lot to me.”
Like rugby, Marler is much better than he was, “but I am not where I want to be yet”.
Watch Joe Marler in 'Big Boys Don’t Cry' on Sky Sports Arena and NOW at 4pm on Wednesday May 12, and throughout the week on multiple Sky Sports channels.