Harlequins have designs on being London’s standard-bearers and champions of the Premiership this season, but their new captain, Joe Marler, is not weighed down with delusions of grandeur.
“I’m realistic about where I stand with England,” says Marler, as he contemplates an unprecedented confluence of new challenges with club and country. “I’m very much third choice and I’ve been very fortunate to get as many caps  as I have, because of injuries to Mako [Vunipola] and Corbs [Alex Corbisiero]. But don’t get me wrong; that won’t stop me pushing them as hard as I can. I want to play in that home World Cup.”
For those who have been hiding on Mars, “that home World Cup” kicks off at Twickenham in 12 months and 18 days’ time. The onus is on Marler and any other hopefuls – including, just possibly, Sam Burgess, the rugby league convert who arrives at Bath in October – to hurry up their case for selection.
Literally, in one sense, because the England management have let it be known that the players’ fitness was found wanting on the June tour to New Zealand, when the Test series was lost 3-0. An alternative view would be to wonder whether some were all played out after a long domestic season. The “mental side as well as the physical one” is one reason why Harlequins’ director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, has made Marler, unusually for a loosehead prop, the club captain, leaving previous skipper Chris Robshaw in charge only of England.
The England players have been told there is a 10-minute increase in ball-in-play time from club to Test rugby, and Marler offers further evidence. “Some of the rugby played in those Tests [in New Zealand] was lightning quick,” the 24-year-old says, with a steely look beneath his bleached-blond Mohawk, “and for a tight-five forward who’s carrying a bit of weight, I struggled at times. For parts of the tour we went toe to toe with the guys who set the standards in world rugby. It’s about making sure we can go for 80 minutes and not switch off at key times. When we [did] the All Blacks hammered us.”
In a change of practice, Lancaster has been allowed to delay naming this season’s England elite player squad until October instead of during the summer, as had been the case since 2004. So form should be a bigger factor leading into the November internationals at Twickenham.
“It’s a big year for anyone who’s there or thereabouts in the England squad,” says Marler. “Anything can happen. It’ll be fun. If it all goes balls up in a year’s time, I will look back and say I gave it my best shot.”
Marler had a plain old, undyed short-back-and-sides in 2008 when O’Shea, then working for the RFU, made him the England Under-18 captain for a win over Wales. “I wasn’t particularly vocal,” Marler recalls. “I mean, I spoke… but mainly to take the mick out of someone.”
The orange and purple hairdos came later, but nothing has stopped Marler progressing. England have played 25 Tests since his first senior cap in June 2012, and with Corbisiero beleaguered by knee trouble, and Vunipola not always trusted in the scrum, Marler has started 20 of them and played two off the bench. The only Test he has missed since the start of 2013 was in Italy in March this year when he was with his partner for the birth of their son, Jasper. While Corbisiero has been turning out for the champions, Northampton, in pre-season, it is Vunipola waylaid by knee surgery as a further blow to Saracens after losing both showpiece finals last May, in Europe and the Premiership.
“Saracens have won more regular-season matches than anyone in the last three years but they haven’t won the Premiership,” O’Shea says of the London rivals to Quins, who took the title in 2012. “Rugby has the same appeal of football’s Premier League versus La Liga: you cannot take your eye of the ball against any team or you will lose. We needed 15 wins to make the play-offs last season. It could be fewer this season.” Marler’s prediction? “It’ll be interesting to see how Gloucester go; they’ve bulked up the front row. But you might as well tip London Welsh and Newcastle, it’s so difficult to say. My club has been through some dark times, with relegation [in 2005] and ‘Bloodgate’ [in 2009], but the current squad is exciting on the field and nice and tight off it. Nick Evans, Nick Easter, Danny Care – they’re still running the game. I’ll just decide whether we go for the posts or kick for touch. Maybe we’ll go Barbarians style and not go for the posts, ever. I’ll be a crowd favourite on a 15-game losing run.”
A new level of spectator excitement was palpable at last season’s Premiership semi-finals, but can the players’ bodies cope? Harlequins will face Leinster in the European Champions Cup just a week after England’s fourth international (money from which goes to the clubs) against Australia. Compensation for Premiership clubs not playing during the 2015 World Cup, and the consequent doubt cast over England’s tour to Australia in summer 2016, are other vexed issues.
Harlequins at least have recruited at the magicians’ end of the market: the England wing Marland Yarde from London Irish, and the Chiefs wing/centre Asaeli Tikoirotuma (they’re calling him “Tiks”). Mere dabbling compared with the 26 players in, 19 players out at promoted London Welsh. Which prompts a quick geographical recap: London Welsh play in Oxford, London Irish are still in Reading and Wasps have dropped the “London” prefix but remain in High Wycombe. If you’ve got all that, you are – like the season itself – ready to go.