Interview - Joe Marchant: 'I don’t want to be the guy that’s making up the numbers'

Charlie Morgan
Joe Marchant has enjoyed a breakthrough season - JULIAN SIMMONDS

‘Yes, March!” “Work it, baby!” “Get your rig out!”

The first-team captain’s run has finished at Harlequins’ training base in sunny Guildford, but a senior academy group are still going through a few drills on the adjacent pitch. That is, they are throwing a ball around while mocking Joe Marchant during his photo shoot for this interview beside the posts.

Despite possessing enough talent to have seized the attention of England head coach Eddie Jones, their target is as unassuming as 20-year-olds come. Being snapped in full view of his peers – and some of the academy squad are older than him – is causing Marchant excruciating embarrassment.

In many ways, the centre is an archetypal millennial. At school he consumed highlight reels of hot-steppers such as Quade Cooper and Gio Aplon on YouTube. He is also honing guitar and piano-playing skills with online video tutorials, learning Ed Sheeran’s new album in its entirety.

So far, so modern. But Marchant’s sporting development is a throwback story in which his parents encouraged him to pursue, and benefit from, as many pursuits as possible.

“I started Wado-ryu karate when I was about six,” he says. “I did it until I was about 15 and got my black belt. I did gymnastics, dance, swimming. My mum’s a swim teacher, my dad’s an athletics coach and I just wanted to have a go at everything. I’d say gymnastics was still helpful. A lot of boys will lack flexibility and, once people put on size, they can lose range. Gymnastics gives you flexibility, strength and a really good core.”

Credit: Julian Simmonds

Even after choosing rugby, Marchant only found his current position after shifting from the back row and into the half-backs as a teenager who was “too small to play anywhere else”. But once his first Harlequins assignment in the A League arrived, from the bench at outside centre, he did not look back.

This season has been a breakthrough one. Named in Jones’s Elite Player Squad after a superb Under Under-20 World Championship in England’s trophy-winning tournament last summer, Marchant will on Saturday make a 17th Premiership appearance of the season, in the showpiece game in front of more than 70,000 supporters at Wembley. And he has knuckled down to learn the nitty gritty.

“Defence is like trying to fit a jigsaw together,” he says. “At the beginning of the season I was quite ropey with bits of my decision-making but I’ve been working hard with Minty – Nick Easter.

“In the 13 channel it’s easy to get exposed. Teams target the spaces either side of you, between you and the 12 or you and the winger. You have usually got two or three guys coming down the channel and you have to pick which one will get the ball.

“At the start of the season I was probably too eager. Actually, if the guys on your inside are doing their job, you can sit off a bit. When you know it’s time to go, you take the space and make your tackles. I’m still going to get it wrong sometimes, but that’s one area I’ve developed a lot this year.”

Lions wildcards

Easter has manifested a more aggressive approach as Harlequins defence coach, while the bulk of Jamie Roberts – “look at the size of him, not many are going to get through him,” says Marchant – means John Kingston’s back line appears steelier as well as star-studded. Indeed, Harlequins fielded Danny Care, Nick Evans, Tim Visser, Roberts, Marland Yarde and Mike Brown in a 53-17 thrashing of Newcastle two weeks ago. In the middle of it all, scoring a try and troubling the Falcons constantly, was Marchant.

“They’ve all done amazing things,” he says of his fellow backs. “They’ve been in big games, they have caps, Lions Tests. But I don’t want to be the guy that’s making up the numbers. I’ve always wanted to fit in. I want people to look at our back line and think: ‘Nobody there is out of place,’

“At the same time, I want to learn. Obviously, I have the boys around me to do it. Whenever anything’s going wrong, or going right, I’m asking questions.”

A Premiership tally of 103 tackles at a success rate of 89 per cent, forcing six turnovers, demonstrates Marchant’s toughness. His return of 38 beaten defenders puts him in the top 10 for the league season, level with Newcastle’s powerhouse Fijian Vereniki Goneva. There is a surprised smile at that statistic, then a wearier one at the reminder that critics have compared his head-up, jinking running style to that of Jonathan Joseph. “I can see where they’re coming from, I guess,” says Marchant, politely. “I’d love to be in contention one day.”

Harlequins starting back line vs Saracens

Marchant has attended two England camps and, with under-20s coach Rory Teague a supportive presence, he did not “feel like an intern”. He seems firmly in the frame for a touring place to Argentina.

Saturday's game is the start of a difficult run-in for Harlequins, who then host Exeter and Wasps before travelling to Northampton. The play-offs are mathematically possible but, as Kingston concedes, unlikely. Still, a host of individuals can hope for an exciting summer, with the Lions or elsewhere.

Marchant might never embrace photo shoots. He exudes dedication to his sport and talks with refreshing enthusiasm about one-on-one footwork duels with housemate Calum Waters, who is among those teasing him after training. Now pitches are hardening, expect Marchant to have a crack at the opposition.

“In tough games as a centre, you need to do the basics, do whatever you can to get over the gain-line,” he finishes. “But when games open up, you get the chance to have a go. That’s what I love.”

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