It was 10 years ago, when Joe Marler was a pre-teen lad making his way at Heathfield & Waldron rugby club in Sussex, that Jason Leonard marched in, all massive girth and big grin, to publicise his autobiography. Marler proffered his treasured copy for the great England and Lions prop to sign and hoped for some of the stardust to rub off.
Fast forward to last June, and the day before Marler's daunting England debut against the Springboks in Durban, when a text flashed up on his phone. "Go for it mate," read the message. The sender? Jason Leonard.
"He's become a mentor to me," says Marler in the tea room at the training ground of Harlequins, the club Leonard played for while accumulating his front-row world record 119 caps. "But I used to watch him and admire him so it's still a bit weird to have his number on my mobile. For that reason I still don't call him as much as I might."
The other reason is that like any self-respecting 22-year-old in the unforgiving roughhouse of the scrum, Marler likes to push or be pushed on his own terms. And after last season's Premiership semi-final and final against Northampton and Leicester respectively, and his South African summer in which he suffered no disasters in three starts for England opposite the famed all-Sharks front row of Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, he has a pile of respectful ticks on his CV. "You go there [South Africa] thinking, 'Is it that big a step up?'," says Marler. "And you find, yeah, it is tough, but no tougher than some of the big games we've been involved with here [at Quins]. The difference I suppose is that the majority of the people on the pitch were world-class players. The intensity that people ran at made you think, 'Wow, this is quite fun'."
Harlequins, the champions, are thriving on a cocktail of coherent gameplan and togetherness forged by a group of English players emerging together. Live scrummaging has become a regular feature of training, but the head coach, John Kingston, ensures it is not about beating the bejesus out of each other.
Of Marler he says: "He's level-headed and if anything he underrates himself, which is a great thing in this world. Go back 18 months and everybody thought he was a bit of a hothead. A year ago we made it clear to [then England manager] Martin Johnson that we didn't think Joe was mentally ready to play for England. They got their timing right and now he's an international. People will even begin to mention the L word, Lions, soon. I am biased but there's no doubt in my mind Joe is the best loosehead in England. He has a great rugby intelligence."
Marler, Joe Gray and James Johnston have grown to fill the gap left by their departed predecessors Ceri Jones, Gary Botha and Mike Ross. In last weekend's 22-9 win at Leicester, they earned a scrummaging "score draw", as Marler put it. He also runs with the ball like an extra flanker.
Today Quins are at home to Saracens, with Heineken Cup action against Biarritz and Connacht following soon. "I used to think that to impose myself was to go out looking to whack someone," Marler says. "I go out these days thinking, 'What's my job, to help my team?' I'll still get in the odd bit of fun, have a scuffle, but not to the point where it's reckless. I'm still learning. It's not just about being the best in England; it's about reaching for those European, world standards."
His development has always been accompanied by reference to colourful haircuts more familiar to a London street market than the Stoop on a hard-scrummaging afternoon. Graham Rowntree, the former England loosehead who is now the national team's forwards coach, let it be known he didn't like them. Mainly for practical reasons: a referee is more likely to spot you on the wrong side of a ruck if you have a red wedge of hair sticking up.
"People said, 'If you didn't have a silly haircut then you wouldn't get asked about it'," says Marler, who was born in Eastbourne, where a blue rinse is not uncommon. "But I didn't think it was silly. Some people have tattoos, some have funny boots. Hair's my thing. You can't stop someone being who they are."
Yet his head is shaved now and he doesn't expect the Mohawk to return for a while, not least due to the recession – of his hairline. "I also realised that if the people picking me are saying, 'We think you should do this, for this reason', I'm not going to put two fingers up to them. I'd like to play for England and if it means having non-silly hair, I'll have non-silly hair."
Rowntree gives him a performance review every three or four weeks; England will gather at the end of October to prepare for internationals with Fiji, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The previous incumbent of England's No 1 jersey, Alex Corbisiero of London Irish, is due back soon from a knee injury.
"We'll see what happens but it's exciting," says Marler. "And funnily enough, Graham did finish off his phone call the other day with, 'I like your hair at the moment'. So I said, 'Thanks'."
Prop idols: The contenders
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, tighthead) age 25/caps 31
Alex Corbisiero (London Irish, loosehead) 24/16
Joe Marler (Harlequins, loosehead) age 22/3
David Wilson (Bath, both sides) 27/19
Nathan Catt (Bath, loosehead) 24/0
Paul Doran Jones (Northampton Saints, both sides) 27/4
Matt Mullan (Worcester Warriors, loosehead) 25/1
Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks, tighthead) 20/0
Mako Vunipola (Saracens, loosehead) 21/0
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