Joe Marler knows precisely what to expect from the Springboks when world rugby’s most intimidatingly physical specimens attempt to smash Twickenham’s door clean off its hinges on Saturday.
“That physicality is part and parcel of their culture,” said the England prop, grimacing slightly through a half-smile. “As a nation, they stand very tall, very proud and very confident. They always run hard at you... and if that doesn’t work, they run harder.”
All of which makes this an unusually uncomfortable week, even by the eye-wateringly challenging standards of modern-day international union. Whatever pain the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Bismarck du Plessis and Duane Vermeulen inflict on red-rose bodies in four days’ time may be nothing more than a gnat bite compared with the punishment already dished out to hearts and minds by the England players themselves, behind closed doors in yesterday’s “honesty session”.
Marler was not prepared to point an accusatory finger at any of his own colleagues for the flaws, foul-ups and failures that stained England’s performance against the All Blacks in the first of their autumn Tests.
“There were individual errors and collective ones,” he said, clearly indicating that this would be the extent of the detailed intelligence provided on the subject. “But there are high levels of frustration and those have been expressed,” he added. “We’re a very honest team. An environment has been created that allows anyone to pipe up and say his piece, and it gives people a chance to take responsibility for their mistakes.”
If this was prop speak for “a mass rollicking” – and by openly admitting that he could not use the words he would like to use in reflecting on the more negative aspects of England’s display against the world champions, Marler virtually confirmed as much – that rollicking was well deserved. It is not every day that a team takes a lead over New Zealand into the break, so to concede the tactical and strategic advantage so limply in the second half was as much as a tight forward’s flesh and blood could stand.
“We knew what we had to do after the interval because we spoke about it in the dressing room,” said the loose-head specialist from Harlequins. “Then we went out and did the opposite. To lose control of things in the third quarter was very disappointing, especially as the game had been given the big build-up and the crowd were being phenomenal in supporting us. We have a responsibility to them, not just to give them something to cheer about but to win matches.”
If Marler is one of rugby’s more phlegmatic types when it comes to performance appraisal – while taking his audience through the fallout from a fourth consecutive red-rose defeat, he was keen to remind them that “no one actually died” – his more choleric side is likely to be in evidence this weekend. The 24-year-old forward from Eastbourne is hardly the most combustible prop in red-rose history, but together with Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood in the current England pack, he does not respond well to liberties taken by the opposing team.
“South Africa will come with a pack looking for dominance,” he said. “They have a world-class tight five and some very hard men. A lot of us had a baptism of fire against them when we toured over there in 2012, especially in the early stages of the game in Johannesburg, and if you don’t front up to them you get pumped. But while we expect a reaction from them after their defeat in Ireland at the weekend, we also expected a reaction from ourselves. It’s not just about us going toe to toe with them. It’s about us ramping things up and taking them to some of the darker places.”
Talking of which, Marler has had his bleak moments since making his international debut, against the Boks in Durban, on that tour a little over two years ago. He has seen the likes of Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola move ahead of him in the England pecking order and win Lions Test caps into the bargain. While the gift of staying fit in the midst of so much front-row orthopaedic trauma has presented him with a chance to secure a future for himself as his country’s number one No 1, the news that Corbisiero is likely to be playing again by Christmas means that he needs a run of big performances to stay ahead of the competition.
Whether or not he manages it, he will remain one of the treasures of professional game. Extravagant haircuts, eye-catching tattoos and a talent for the waspish one-liner put him squarely in an “interesting” category vacated by great swathes of his fellow Premiership performers in recent seasons. When asked about the infuriating misuse of the so-called “television match official” at Twickenham on Saturday, he had a super-smart response. “As a front-row forward,” he said, drily, “a three-to-four minute break doesn’t do me any harm. But I suppose that’s a selfish answer.”
Whatever breathers he is given when the Boks comes visiting, he will finish Saturday’s game in a state of exhaustion. Such is the way of it against the most brutal opponents in the sport, and given the amount at stake, there are certain to be some fire and brimstone moments at the sharp end. “I think we know what to expect,” Marler said. “My approach? I’ll take the frustration I’m feeling now on to the field with me and use it as motivation. What I won’t do is let it cloud my judgement.”Reuse content