The 26th of September 2018 was the date he tried to sort this all out. He would step away from international rugby. He was young enough to still be incredibly useful as an international prop forward, but he’d had enough. Of rugby? Possibly not. Of what came with it? Maybe.
Joe Marler has a brilliant mind. One that can find comedy very quickly. He recognises situations before anyone else and can quickly step outside of himself to comment and amuse people. If you were to give him a microphone and an audience, he’d entertain everyone. That’s a really difficult thing to do.
Does he work on it? He will think in these patterns all the time. Around him, players, club staff and friends will tell you he rarely stops looking for a funny angle. But one on one, he’s a brilliantly sensitive and kind man. A by-product of being a good comedian is the ability to empathise; remember how closely great comedic creations are linked with pathos. Joe knows how people feel; he knows gravitas and seriousness; he can be profound and insightful. But in certain situations, he loves to make people laugh.
And Joe knows this. When your brain works like his does, self-awareness is a blessing and a curse. He knows what he is likely to do, and how that might not always get the reaction he is after. The problem with comedy is that you do fire some duds. You also attempt to find comedy in anything. There is nothing off-limits for a truly comedic brain. It will gaily skip through fields of egregious matter, sliding its hands over things like sexual assault, incest, racism, as if they were ears of corn. It’s not that they don’t think those things aren’t awful and horrible: they are looking for a rise, a snort, a reaction. Comedy’s intention is to make people laugh but a shocked gasp will also do. They are trying to find the right joke for the right person, on the right occasion. Of course, this is where it can also go wrong.
Earlier in this Premiership campaign, Marler was yellow carded for his fracas with Jean-Luc du Preez of the Sale Sharks. Even in that ruckus, Marler found comedy. In apologising to Du Preez, he pretended to be confused as to which of the Du Preez twins he’d whacked. Sale’s players were unimpressed, with many of them screaming at him to leave the field. Joe exited shaking his head. He was trying to diffuse the situation. But his comedy hadn’t worked.
And then there was the whole Samson Lee saga. Another wind-up gone wrong. How social media seethed. How we, myself included, whined that he should know better. But I did not understand the man; how intrinsically ‘being funny’ sits within him.
And this is why Joe wanted to give up international rugby. Because he knew, deep down, that he couldn’t be trusted to refrain from joking at the wrong time. And international rugby, with all its slo-mos and out of context screengrabs, means that it is never the right occasion. It would happen again.
Let’s talk about intent. It is very relevant here. There is no serious intent about Marler’s fondle. There is no malice or spite. It is aimed at getting a reaction, and yes, it is purposefully invasive. But it may be a lot more benign than people think. In the context of a rugby fraternity, it isn’t terribly unusual. You can get het up about that but it’s how these communities roll. They grab each other in all sorts of different ways, for lots of different reasons. Should it not happen? Probably. Is it something which goes on? Definitely.
But that doesn’t really matter. The watching hordes will throw up their arms and Joe Marler will be vilified. And what he was most worried about, what drove him to give up back in September 2018, will come back to haunt him.
Maybe we shouldn’t feel sorry for him. It is all part of playing the clown. But you can’t say he didn’t try and warn us.