n a hushed morning in East Sussex, Joe Marler looks around the kitchen which he smashed up in misery 18 months ago. Marler is one of the most engaging men in rugby but in March 2019, eight months before he played on anti-depressants in the World Cup final, the England prop succumbed to the darkness he had struggled with for years. Even his wife, Daisy, had no idea Marler was so depressed he often cried while driving to training at Harlequins.
For two hours today Marler has been warm and engaging, whether mimicking my South African accent with deadly accuracy or telling me riotous anecdotes about the surreal world of a rugby dressing room. Now, as we reach the crux of his story, it becomes clear that his kitchen breakdown was the catalyst which led to the psychiatric help that transformed his life.
I didn’t recognise who I was any more
Daisy drifts in and out of the kitchen as we talk, with her and Marler’s third and youngest child, Felix, propped on her hip. The easy rapport between her and Marler is a reminder that a minor argument between them was not the reason that their kitchen ended up wrecked 18 months ago. Daisy was angry that Marler had not swerved to try to miss a squirrel in the road after they had dropped their children off at school.
The squirrel escaped but Marler recalls that, because of the chemical imbalance in his brain, “I snapped. We got home and I just spiralled and lost control. I turned over the kitchen, punched in one of the doors. Then I got in the truck and drove off. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. But it was a massive turning point because it was the most ashamed I’ve ever been. I didn’t recognise who I was any more. After 30 minutes I came back because I was running out on everything good in my life.”
Marler tugs at his beard while he relives the upsetting memory. “Daisy was crying and I was worried she was scared,” Marler recalls, “but we’ve spoken about it often since then. She says: ‘I was never scared of you. I was just upset and wondering who you were and what you were doing.’ She had no idea even during those times when she’d said: ‘Any danger of you actually being here, when you’re here?’ I wasn’t engaging because I was stuck in this fog. I didn’t feel like I could tell her or anyone because I was in complete denial there was anything wrong with me. We didn’t speak that night.”
The next day Marler had to play for Harlequins against Saracens. “My hand was in agony so I texted the doc. When the doc saw me he said: ‘”How did you do this?’ I said: ‘Oh, I dropped a weight on it in the garage.’ There was silence and then he went: ‘Are Daisy and the kids all right?’ I said: ‘Yeah. Why?’ He was like: ‘You haven’t dropped a weight on this.’ I just melted. ‘Fuck, how does he know?’ I broke down and said: ‘I don’t know what’s going on, mate. I feel awful. I’m a bad person.’ He was like: ‘Let’s sort your hand out. We can use a jab to get you through the game. Then let’s get you some help. We’ll keep it confidential and get someone independent that doesn’t know you.’ I managed to get through the game.”
How did he play? “I was bang average and after the game I cried my eyes out. The boys sat in the changing room, thinking: ‘What do we do?’ It goes back to that fake tough guy persona I’d built up. They were scared to come forward but my closer mates – Danny Care, Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw – eventually said: ‘What’s up, mate?’ I was like: ‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’”
Marler was the opposite of fine. He felt even worse than he had done in 2016 when, after another game against Saracens, he walked straight off the pitch, through the car park and got into his truck while still wearing his boots and sweat-soaked rugby kit. In his powerful new book, which is also very funny, Marler remembers crying all the way home.
Last year, he found the courage to speak to his wife. “I’d been worried about burdening Daisy because she’s got enough shit on her plate. Daisy was like: ‘As if it’s a burden! That’s the whole point of us being together – to support each other.’”
In the same way, there would be not much point to life without humour. “Fucking hell, we’d be crying 24 hours a day,” Marler says dryly. “You’d get nothing done. Some of my friends have said: ‘You’ve written this book, put in some funny rugby anecdotes, and then you’ve plonked in depression. Don’t you think that’s the wrong tone?’ But why can’t you laugh about depression? Why can’t you use laughter as a tool to help cope?”
At first, he was dubious about talking to a psychiatrist. “Before I met him I thought I’d lie on a leopard-print bed and he’d be a German in glasses.”
Marler has slipped into a German accent which sounds vaguely French. “He was half-French, half-German,” he quips. “But it was just a nice room and the psychiatrist was called Humphrey. We sat in two chairs and chatted and he said: ‘You’re suffering with severe depression so we’re going to treat you accordingly. I was like: ‘Brilliant. We’ve got a plan.’ Not knowing is the tough bit.
“He recommended that I go on antidepressants. I said: ‘Humphrey, I don’t need that. I want to be strong enough to fight this with my brain.’ He’s like: ‘Joe, when you’re ill, do you take antibiotics?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ So he said: “Antibiotics help fight the infection and then your body beats it. That’s how you should look at the antidepressants. They’re there as a chemical to help you whilst you’re learning these different techniques and understanding more. He broke down Escitalopram, the drug I was on, and said: ‘This is a cleaner drug with a smaller chance of side-effects. I was like: ‘OK, we’ll see how it goes.’ I really was fine.”
Marler revels in memories of his World Cup experience in Japan and how the team decided to confront the New Zealand haka. Using a Cornish accent he gently ribs the reserve hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie, who was more concerned with the precise spot where he was meant to stand when facing the All Blacks in a V rather than the World Cup semi-final itself.
More seriously, he describes Eddie Jones, as the most supportive coach he has known despite the Australian’s abrasive reputation. He also captures the blunt way that Jones transformed England in 2016. “Eddie said: ‘You are all fucking cowards mate, you’re too scared, you’re too fucking nice. You’re almost too English, afraid to offend anyone, including your teammates.’ If you’re not prepared to turn round in training to Jamie George and say: ‘Mate that throw wasn’t good enough’, you’ll never make progress. He shook the niceties out of us and showed us you can still be a tight-knit group, and unbelievable friends, but also with the ability to give and receive feedback that’s going to improve you and the team.”
Marler still laments how England lost the final, when their scrum was obliterated by the Springboks. In the warm-up, Marler felt the mood dip inexplicably. “But there’ve been many warm-ups for club and country that have been dog shit and we’ve gone and played unbelievably. It is so hard to put a finger on but we did not lose the World Cup final because, as Clive Woodward mentioned, me and Dan Cole had a laugh in a press conference before it. He said it was the wrong tone. But we had that tone when we beat New Zealand. That was how we worked as a team and enjoyed ourselves.”
Was the early loss of a concussed Kyle Sinckler from the England front row a factor? “Kyle was in great form but Matt Proudfoot thinks differently.”
Proudfoot was the Springbok scrum coach whom Jones has now enticed to work for England. Marler slips into a South African accent again. “He was like: ‘Honestly mate, it wouldn’t have mattered if Sinckler stayed on. We had this plan with the Beast [the Springbok prop Tendai Mtawaria] against Sinckler. The look the Beast had in his eyes that day, no one could’ve stopped him.’ I still resent and dislike Matt intensely.”
Marler laughs. “No, we get on really well. But I text him twice a week saying I’ll never forgive you. I came on in the second half and I was up against Vincent Koch as they brought on their bomb squad, their more disruptive scrummagers. At my first scrum, we shoved them backwards and the referee penalised us. The damage had been done because our scrum had conceded five penalties and perception was everything. Our energy was sapped.
“If I was just a fan I would’ve been surprised that the scrum can have such an impact. For years people have said get rid of the scrum. But that’s why rugby is so unique. You can win a World Cup on the back of having the best scrum in the world.”
The 30-year-old, who has 66 Test caps, has his leg in a brace. “I’ve got an injury called Morel-Lavallée. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But it’s weird one where a muscle floods the kneecap with fluid. Last Saturday they drained it, shoved in loads of glue and stitched it. I asked where they got the glue and they were like: ‘It’s not your local B&Q, mate.’ They say it could take five weeks but I’ll be fit when I’m fit. I’m long enough in the tooth for Eddie to know what I can and can’t do. If you need me, you need me. If you don’t, you don’t. I’m at peace with that.”
Marler also seems serene about his mental health. “I came back from the World Cup and said: ‘I’m fixed! Hallelujah!’ So I stopped taking the tablets and nosedived straightaway. After two weeks of spinning out, hitting a low again, I saw Humphrey. I went back on the antidepressants and, lo and behold, started to improve. It’s been helpful to accept you can still do your job on antidepressants.”
Does he worry about slipping back into depression? “There’s always that danger, but I’m far more equipped to deal with it. I’m far more educated from both a biological and emotional point of view. I’m no mental health expert but I feel a lot better talking about it. Let’s just talk about it more and, please, take the piss out of me more. That will help me move forward.”
Marler is already moving forward as, in-between phoning a local garage to help replace my car’s flat tyre, he describes reading his book for the audio version. “I did all the accents,” he says before offering a detailed impression of each one. The kitchen rocks with laughter.
“It’s a happy place again,” Marler says, looking around the room he wrecked. “And you know mate, I’ve enjoyed today because I like engaging with people. I like talking and I like laughing.”