Joe Marler: What did I learn as a Lion? How to drink
In an era where the twin forces of professionalism and commercialism are eroding many of rugby’s engaging traditions, it is refreshing to learn, via Harlequins and England prop Joe Marler, that the Lions midweek team still know how to raise a small slice of hell.
Players returning from a Lions tour tend to extol the quality of their teammates and opposition, an experience which they invariably say has made them a better player. As his wont, Marler does not engage with such platitudes.
Did it make him a better player he is asked? “I wouldn’t say that,” he replies. What did he learn instead? “How to drink,” is the short, direct answer.
“Rory Best is the one to blame for that,” Marler continues. “He is the one to blame for every time I spoke to my wife on Facetime she said ‘are you pissed again?’ And I was ‘of course not’ so that is probably the biggest thing I learned on that tour.
“It was a different tour particularly for the midweek ‘veg’ as we were labelled but it was really enjoyable. It was more like an old school sort of tour basically. I didn’t expect it – I thought those days are kind of gone now. Everything is ultra professional isn’t it?
“More and more guys coming through like the academy boys and you are going out on a social and there is no one drinking which is completely fine, that is their gig, but that is the way I thought the game was going, but obviously not on a Lions tour. I missed the proper old school a little, I am not that old, but it was very enjoyable to do that sort of thing.”
Marler is quick to emphasise that their social activities did not hinder their efforts in training or in the midweek games against the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes. “That didn’t detract from us working our bollocks off as much as we could because we wanted to be part of a successful Lions tour,” Marler said. “We wanted the boys to go out there and win 3-0. We trained very hard and we pushed boys in our positions as hard as we could to make sure they were ready for the Tests.”
Yet Marler says it was apparent early on who the coaches were favouring in certain positions. In his own case, Mako Vunipola, who acted as his understudy during the Six Nations for England, and Ireland’s Jack McGrath established themselves ahead of the 28-year-old in the pecking order.
“We knew pretty early doors what the crack was,” Marler said. “We knew it would be very hard to play your way into that Test team – you were kind of relying on someone playing their way out of it and hoping you were in a position to go right ‘needed for that spot’.”
How did he learn that? “Just the general selections,” Marler said. “You could read between the lines of when teams were picked and what teams were picked on what days and what teams they were playing against.”
Previous Lions tours have been derailed by the treatment or behaviour of the midweek side. The last tour to New Zealand in 2005 resulted in the midweek team being dislocated from the main touring party. In 1993, again in New Zealand, the dirt-trackers’ social activities had a distracting effect on the Test team.
Nevertheless, Marler has a certain degree of sympathy for Sir Clive Woodward whose reputation took such a battering on the 2005 tour.
“I had heard a lot about the 05 tour and the fact that Clive Woodward had taken a big squad and split it – officially split it – they had separate coaching staff and they would travel at different times,” Marler said. “Having experienced what I did in the summer made me understand why he did that more but you don’t need to do that in order to make it work.
“You can still make it work the way we did. You are still altogether – there wasn’t a single separation or faction in that squad, irrelevant of whether the boys were starting in the Tests or the midweek games. It was genuinely a great group of blokes that had a really good time. My drinking ability had to step up a bit.”
Still, in light of Manu Tuilagi and Denny Solomona’s recent indiscretion, Marler is not prepared to tell Eddie Jones, the England head coach, to adopt the midweekers’ policy on socialising. “I don’t suggest anything to Eddie – I don’t say a word to him mate – just keep my head down and let the boss do what he wants.”