Joe Marler interview: Saracens Premiership semi-final is THE grudge match... this is why I still play rugby

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Joe Marler is in no mood to play down Harlequins’ rivalry with Saracens ahead of the Premiership semi-finals   (Getty Images)
Joe Marler is in no mood to play down Harlequins’ rivalry with Saracens ahead of the Premiership semi-finals (Getty Images)

Joe Marler is midway through talking about HarlequinsPremiership semi-final visit to Saracens tomorrow lunchtime when he pauses for breath.

“Mate, I’m just really struggling to string proper sentences together because I am so excited,” he says. “I need to sit myself down, lock myself in a cupboard, turn the lights off until 1.30 on Saturday, because I cannot wait. It’s going to be so niggly and aggy, but also so much fun.”

The truth is that Marler never struggles to string proper sentences together. He is a rare thing in rugby: an authentic speaker, unafraid to share his views.

He has just spent 10 minutes talking breathlessly about his favourite pants, Step One. He fell in love with them, he says, after a recommendation from Quins lock Matt Symons, because their advertising featured men with frames that belonged in the front row not the midfield. “They were advertising dad-bods,” he says. “And I thought, ‘that’s a bit of me’.”

After his stint in cupboard quarantine, Marler will be wearing them tomorrow for a game that your correspondent makes the mistake of describing as “a bit of a grudge match”.

“It’s the London derby,” he says. “It’s not a bit of a grudge match. It’s the grudge match. We have not liked each other very much over the years. When the play-offs started to get close and it was looking like we’d get Sarries away, I was thinking, ‘this is why I still play, for these games, for the big-boy games’.”

Marler knows he does not have too many of these big games left. He jokes that his physique is becoming ever more like those dad-bods in Step One’s ads. The end of his career, he admits, “is a daily thought”.

“I won’t go too long that I can’t play football with my kids,” he says. “There’s no date on it yet, but I know it’s close.”

Marler does not think this rivalry was a really big thing when Quins won the title in 2012, believing instead that it was born two years later, in another semi-final in north London.

“They did a massive job on us,” he says. “There was a lot of spikiness in that game. I remember Chris Ashton screaming when he charged down one of Nick Evans’ conversions, so it was retaken. There was pushing and shoving between their strength and conditioning coach and Ashy and Danny Care as we were going in. That was the start of it all.”

Saracens vs Harlequins

The key battles

Mako Vunipola vs Joe Marler

These two have worked in tandem on the loose-head for the nation across the last decade, and remain the cornerstones of their club sides.

Either side of a decent lay-off due to an ankle injury, Vunipola has been excellent, even earning an England recall for a recent training camp.

Marler remains central to Eddie Jones’s plans and has had an outstanding season for Quins. He appears to be relishing the club’s relaxed set-up over the last year.

Billy Vunipola vs Alex Dombrandt

The barrelling men at the base of the scrum ally heavy lifting with light touches. Watching Vunipola this season, it is hard to believe that his England career is over, especially as he is only 29.

Dombrandt is four years younger and has moved ahead in the pecking order, showing glimpses of his club form with Quins, where he is an important leader, at international level. A titanic battle awaits.

Owen Farrell vs Marcus Smith

Jones has these two inked in to start against Australia next month, with Quins centre Joe Marchant outside them. Smith has dominated the England No10 jersey this year while Farrell has been out, but the Saracen has been in sensational form since his return a few weeks ago.

According to Jamie George, Farrell is channelling Michael Jordan in the Last Dance. Smith will have to be at his most creative and resilient to overcome him.

It is an interesting rivalry, for two reasons. First, it has deepened plenty since Saracens were relegated for salary cap infringements two years ago.

“100 per cent,” says Marler. “I am talking personally, a lot of boys feel the same way. And it wasn’t just our club, it was the rest of the league. But, to be honest, a lot of other people have to hold their hands up and say that they allowed them to do what they did and for those things to happen. We can’t just say it’s all Sarries. The system in place wasn’t fit for purpose.

“I don’t speak on behalf of the club, this is me personally, but definitely part of that still winds me up.”

The second reason is that the animosity may not be reciprocated.

“They say back that it’s not really a rivalry because it’s only one way,” he says. “They say, ‘we don’t see you as rivals, rivals compete each against each other. You guys are bad. You’ve been terrible since 2012, so we don’t really see you as rivals’. And that boils my blood even more!”

Marler believes that “all the odds are stacked against us” — which is just how Quins like it. It is what drove their remarkable rise to the title last year and the dizzying comebacks that have become their trademark. “I can’t remember the last time we went to the Stonex, or whatever it was called before, and won,” he says. “And we’ve lost both games already this year.

Former England stalwart Marler is an ambassador for Step One (Step One)
Former England stalwart Marler is an ambassador for Step One (Step One)

“We will try to play the rugby we want to play, although Sarries will have a lot to say about that. Win, lose or draw, as long as we have stuck to that. People label us as arrogant or not adaptable enough to be a proper championship-winning team. It’s our DNA. That’s how we play, it’s what makes us happy and it’s what we stick to.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a massive driver, but it’s spoken about. We won the Premiership last year and there’s still a lack of respect for it and for us among other teams and other players. Let’s use that a little bit.”

One way to pour cold water on that lack of respect? Win it again.

Joe Marler is an ambassador for Step One, the sustainable and ethical underwear brand, created to offer unbelievable comfort for men and women of all body shapes and sizes.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting