Eventually, after months of injury anguish and maddening non-selection, an age holding the Edinburgh tackle bags knowing his chances of playing were as remote as seeing Richard Cockerill in a tutu, Darryl Marfo needed to get out.

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In two years, he had gone from starting for Scotland against the All Blacks to Edinburgh’s fourth-choice loosehead prop. The trajectory that had taken him from club-less and considering premature retirement to the international game had not so much hit a plateau as plummeted.

He played 21 minutes of rugby in 2018/19 and by December last year, none at all the following season. Since joining Edinburgh in 2017, Marfo had made just eleven outings. His career had fallen stagnant and at 29 years old, he couldn’t go on. 

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YouTube rugby sensation Squidge guests on The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

“When you know, you know,” Marfo told RugbyPass. “I couldn’t do what I wanted with Edinburgh and I couldn’t do for Edinburgh what they needed me to. I wanted the match-day 23 to have the best preparation they could, but there is only a certain amount of time you can keep spending in that position where you’re just holding the bag, not doing anything meaningful. 

“Part of my problem is that I’m not big on reflective glory. A lot of people tell me I need to lighten up and not be so hard on myself. I want everything to be unrealistically perfect. I’d never, ever be the kind of person to put on my kit, go and train with Edinburgh and say, ‘This is great’. If you’re not playing, you’re not a rugby player – you’re a professional trainer. That is the truth.”

Naturally, Cockerill, the pugnacious Edinburgh coach, didn’t sugar-coat the predicament Marfo was in. With the arrival and stupendous impact of Pierre Schoeman, the signing of Jamie Bhatti and the return to fitness of Rory Sutherland, Marfo practically needed injuries, Scotland call-ups and dramatic losses of form all at once to get a look-in.

Despite the meagre game time, Edinburgh were good to Marfo, and ultimately, player and club reached what he describes as an “amicable” settlement. That allowed Marfo to cut short his contract and free himself up for new suitors. 

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“One thing I really respect about Cockers is his honesty,” he said. “It’s only now when I’m out of the environment that I really appreciate him doing that. I understand coaches have a million things to worry about, and they’re always trying to keep the environment positive to make it as successful as it can be. But what in turn happens is that sometimes people avoid telling hard truths. 

“When I was doing well, Cockers told me, and when I wasn’t doing so well, he told me that too. If you asked him what the craic was with something, he’d tell you to your face. I’ll never lay any blame at his door. I’ll take responsibility for everything that happened. I’m in charge of my performance. Realistically, I wasn’t going to play, so it’s either sitting around or trying to make something different happen.”

Manufacturing opportunity from adversity is no new concept. Arguably, it is Marfo’s ability to endure, adapt, and thrive off the paddock that is more impressive than the considerable quality he delivers on it.

After emerging from the Harlequins academy, he struggled to oust the internationals blocking his path to the first team. He left for the Championship seeking precious match minutes, had stints with London Scottish, Ealing Trailfinders and London Welsh before the latter went bust and he joined Bath on a short-term deal. With no longer contract in the offing, he emailed Jonny Petrie, Edinburgh’s former managing director, and engineered a move north. 

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Although raised on a coarse but loving estate in central London, Marfo and his brother spent many happy childhood weeks holidaying in Ayrshire, where their mother Cheryl is from. It was through Cheryl that a sense of Scottishness always resonated, and he capitalised on a spree of injuries to face Samoa, take part in an agonising loss to New Zealand and an evisceration of the Wallabies in successive weekends in November 2017. 

The general consensus was that this unknown behemoth from Pimlico had played a blinder on his first steps in Test rugby. “There was pride and happiness that I’d kept going through all the times where it seemed it wouldn’t happen,” Marfo said.

“Being an international rugby player can depend on so many things. I’ve seen guys playing in the Championship who, in my opinion, are better than some internationals that I’ve been around. I believed I had the ability to do it if I put in the work. I got the opportunity and I showed that I did have the ability to compete and perform on that stage. It was a nice vindication.”

In January, the Ospreys’ need for looseheads was nearly as grave as Gregor Townsend’s was that autumn. The region were losing props like coins down a sofa and losing matches nearly as fast. Marfo’s first start was the gentlest of baptisms, a Champions Cup pool match against scandal-hit giants Saracens. 

The holders were not fielding all of their galacticos, and lost Rhys Carre to a fifth-minute red card, but they were still an almighty beast for a team in dire straits and a prop who hadn’t played a competitive beat since November 2018.

He got 73 minutes that day, trudging from the pitch spent but satisfied. There was only one more appearance before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and rugby toppled into a state of indefinite adjournment, but the slog against the champions renewed his confidence that he still belongs in that sphere. 

James Johnston (left) and Darryl Marfo celebrate Harlequins‘ 2013 LV= Cup win (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

“You’re sort of back to competing against the top players. People say that it wasn’t a full-strength Saracens side, but there was still George Kruis starting and Vincent Koch coming off the bench.

“Once you’ve come through it, you can say that you did contribute to the team, and showed that you could still perform at that level. Being a prop is so simple. If you’re able to tackle, carry, do your set-piece, you can clearly do what’s required. As long as I’m fit, I can operate and I can read the game quite well.

“I’m not saying I’m going to be like Ellis Genge, he’s crazy physically gifted. I’m Darryl Marfo, no-one else. I can provide a solid set-piece, the niggly bits in the loose, and cover the space that I need to.”

The spreading virus denied Marfo the opportunity to showcase himself more fully. There was interest from France, in both the Top 14 and Pro D2, but that has since waned.

Partly, it’s the pandemic visiting financial havoc across the game. It’s also Marfo’s unfortunate berth in the constricted middle tier of a toiling market – neither a burgeoning hotshot nor a world-class icon. And he isn’t English or French-qualified, which renders him less attractive to clubs in the twos richest European leagues. 

“I’ve been through it before, so I’m able to understand that certain things will be what they will be,” he accepted. “It doesn’t make it any easier. Being in that squeezed middle is becoming harder. You’re not the young kid; you’re not the world star. That’s the tough position that people are finding themselves in now, no matter the quality of the player.

“My friend Luke Wallace was outstanding for Quins for nine years but he was part of that squeezed middle, he couldn’t get a contract in the top flight and had to go to the Championship. Is he not good enough to play in the Prem? No, clearly he is. But finances and the way clubs are run, that’s what happens to some guys.”

The deck is stacked against Marfo once more. Whatever the odds, you’d be a fool to bet against him.

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