If it all comes down to the scrum, as well it might when England raise the curtain on their own World Cup with a game against Fiji at Twickenham on Friday night, Joe Marler’s role will be as important as it gets. The fact that he would rather not discuss the subject – that he would much prefer to indulge in his favourite pastimes of sleeping and listening to Fleetwood Mac, which may or may not amount to the same thing – is either an indication of nerves or, more likely, an intensifying of attitude.
Red-rose props down the ages have taken the Trappist approach to big-match build-ups: for every ultra-vocal Phil Vickery, there have been a dozen silent Andrew Sheridans. So when Marler rolled his eyes at the merest mention of the set-piece contest with the South Sea islanders – “I was hoping to avoid the scrum questions you lot hammer on about,” he remarked – he was treading a well-worn path.
But those questions were always going to be asked ahead of the World Cup opener, not least because the England scrum, such a foundation stone under normal circumstances, was reduced to gravel by the French in Paris last month and was something less than an overwhelming triumph against Ireland a week and a half ago.
“It’s been a bit indifferent,” he confessed. “I’ve had two pre-season warm-up games that happened to be international matches against tough opposition. Normally, your warm-ups are against London Scottish or Connacht away, so this has been a bit unusual. But we’re getting some partnerships going again, getting used to each other’s different ways at scrum time. I think I’m getting there personally. We’ll see how it goes on Friday.”
Has there been a particular focus on the grunt-and-groan part of the game in the light of recent problems? “Yes, it’s been a focus, but it’s the same as any other week,” the Harlequins loose-head specialist responded. “We had a tough run against France in the second of the pre-World Cup matches, but I’m hoping we’ll come into some form in the tournament, where it counts. It’s important for us to have a set-piece platform, because if we don’t…” Cue lengthy pause. “If we don’t, we’ll be in a bit of trouble, won’t we?”
Marler has been known to make a virtue of his grumpiness and with the World Cup frenzy on the rise, it was no great surprise to find him in crotchety mood. Last week’s send-off event at the O2 Arena, headlined by Take That, did not transport him towards the heavens: “I’m not a big Take That fan,” he said. “I’m a big Robbie Williams fan and was gutted when he left. To hear he wasn’t coming back for the evening was disappointing. But all the boys enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed watching Jamie George (the substantial Saracens hooker) slipping up the stairs.”
In similar vein, he claimed he had not been besieged by friends begging for World Cup tickets – almost certainly a first in the annals of Test rugby. “It might be a case of me not having any mates,” he reflected. “Or that I’ve changed my number. That’s probably it. The people that actually matter, that I want to be a part of it, are in the know.”
Assuming Marler was not auditioning as the young Victor Meldrew in a One Foot in the Grave prequel, his mood could most easily be explained by the proximity of a game that could, if it goes wrong, wreck England’s prospects irredeemably. Which was probably a good thing from England’s perspective. History tells us that one grouchy prop can bring happiness to the multitude.
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