England v South Africa: Prop Joe Marler ready to stand and fight rather than take flight against the Springboks
Marler will step off the bench in the rematch of the 2019 World Cup final to reinforce an under-strength front row depleted by the loss of Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ellis Genge to Covid and injury.
Had it not been for his own case of coronavirus, Marler would have been starting but he only left self-isolation on Thursday evening and has been limited to one training run all week.
The veteran Harlequins prop has kept fit using his home gym, while also consuming a bottle of red wine a day, and despite his recent illness he has only one approach when taking on the Springboks.
“Head on. I’ve thought about this,” said Marler, who played in the autumn opener against Tonga but sat out the Australia rout a week later.
“You know when you get adrenaline and adrenaline is used for fight or flight...that’s genetics, Neanderthals, the first men....the reason was to work out whether you could stay and fight or leg it because you’re really scared.
“That’s how I feel about the Springbok front rowers and their scrummaging and their passion for it. It’s very much fight or flight and I run towards the fight side of it.
“I love it because all six of them - and you could even look at their third string front rows as well - are arguably world class operators.
“And that’s what I want to do - I want to test myself against the best in the hottest environment and I’m really excited about it.”
Marler was ruled out against Australia after his positive Covid test was revealed in midweek and he immediately returned home to Suffolk to begin quarantining in the knowledge that he could return in time to face South Africa.
“My taste buds aren’t back. Headline news. It’s really upsetting me. My kids are fine, my wife is fine,” Marler said.
“About two years ago we had a big chicken pen built and unfortunately my dog died on the same night that a fox ravaged my four chickens in there.
“So I had this pen that I could do some running in and I’ve got a gym in my garage, so I kept on top of that.
“And then I tucked into a bottle of red a day just to keep things going and I’ve managed to make it back.”
With Genge ruled out, Marler limited to a supporting role and Mako Vunipola out of favour, 21-year-old Bevan Rodd will win his second cap at loosehead prop a week after impressing on his debut against the Wallabies.
Alongside Rodd will be four-cap hooker Jamie Blamire, who is regarded as second choice in his position at his club Newcastle, and Marler will tell both prospects to seize their opportunity.
“The fact Bevan will have to back it up against the best team in the world I hope will learn him that international rugby is relentless and you have to be on top of your game the whole time to even just get parity,” he said. But also I hope they learn it’s one of the best places to be and you want to be playing in these environments against the best and the biggest in front of 80,000-plus, on TV.
“It’s just a really, really enjoyable thing to do. I hope they learn from that, aren’t daunted and they thrive and want to do it again and again and again.”
Head coach Eddie Jones has sought to fire-up his underdogs by claiming the Springboks believe their pack is “weak”.
South Africa suffocated their way to World Cup glory in 2019 and a 2-1 series victory over the Lions earlier this year, attacking through the set-piece and stifling with a relentless kicking game.
It is hard viewing at times, but forwards coach Cockerill admires the effective simplicity of what they do.
“Physically from a scrum, set-piece and line-out point of view, there isn’t a harder team to play against in the world at the moment,” Cockerill said.
“That’s the challenge for us. It won’t be one we’ll shy away from, we’re looking forward to going into battle against South Africa. We’ll fire our own bullets and play how we want to play.
“There are always points in the match where you have to match the opposition physically. If they think we have a weakness there that’s up to them, but we certainly don’t.
“South Africa play how they want to play and they make no apologies for that. And it’s been successful. They’re world champions and they win most games that they play.
“It’s very much the most physical test you’ll come across at Test level. Other teams are physical and fast, but play differently.
“They almost put down the gauntlet of saying ‘we’re going to do this, are you good enough to stop us?’.”
“Test matches are about winning games and they win games. I’ve got no qualms about how they play, fair play to them because they stick to what they do well very well.
“It’s part of their South African DNA which I respect. It’s a great challenge for us to match what they throw at us physically.”