Joe Marler’s international retirement isn’t as big a shock as it might seem at first but it should serve as a warning to those running the game.
Hearing that someone is retiring from international rugby at the age of 28 when there’s no injury involved has to come as something of a surprise but when you listen to the reasons behind the decision it is completely understandable and in a way it’s surprising it doesn’t happen more.
Playing in a Test match and representing your country is a massive honour but that match day represents just a tenth of the effort that goes in and there are downsides behind closed doors that the public don’t see.
Everyone’s personal situation is different and I’m in no position to talk about Joe’s or anyone else’s but you don’t see the strain that rugby can put on family life and it can have very real knock-on effects on mental health as well so it’s a very individual decision and one that should be respected.
It’s easy for people on the outside who aren’t professional rugby players to say they can’t believe he’s giving up the chance to play for England and I understand that point of view but you have to have been in that position to appreciate the pressure and strain it puts on family life.
As an international rugby player, you’re away from home for huge chunks of time. There has been a training camp in Bristol this week and there are others throughout the year on top of the long periods of time you’re away for matches.
Players are going to be away for five weeks during the autumn internationals, then come back shattered and go away again straight away with their club for a big European game, it’s then the Christmas period before there’s another international camp in January, more major European matches that month and then over two months for the Six Nations with a lot of that spent away from home.
After the end of the domestic season, there are then going to be camps throughout the summer in the lead-up to the World Cup. It’s relentless.
Many will question the timing of this decision and ask why he doesn’t carry on playing until the end of the 2019 World Cup but I’m exhausted just outlining that non-stop treadmill that you’d have to be on to make it that far.
To turn down the adulation, the chance to go to a World Cup in less than 12 months’ time and the money that comes with it all as well, of course, is a big decision and it’s a brave one that he hasn’t taken lightly.
The selfish thing to do would be to keep doing it and taking the £23,000 per game and other benefits even if his heart isn’t fully in it. The hardest course of action is the one he’s taken and I massively respect him for it.
Sir Clive Woodward has spoken out to say he just cannot understand it but people on the outside making comments like that have no understanding of the current strains on players in the modern game.
If you’re a 19-year-old kid or a 22-year-old at the start of your career, you might be amazed at the decision but life is different when you’re 28 and have a family and rugby is a job. The players know they’re very privileged to do it but it can’t always be at the expense of family life.
Your kids grow up fast. My twins are now nearly a year old and I can’t believe where that year’s gone. It’s flown by and if I was still playing, I’d be missing precious moments like bathing them and reading them stories.
When you can’t do that at all for five weeks straight because of a summer tour and even the autumn internationals and Six Nations when you’re still away for most of it, it takes its toll.
Joe has two young kids and has crammed in 59 caps since he made his England debut six years ago (despite being banned a few times!). He only missed four Tests in four years between 2012 and 2016 so he’s been away a lot.
You can’t play international rugby at 80% and pick and choose which games you play. You’re either all in or all out and it’s sad for everyone that wants to see him playing for England but he’s made this decision in the best interests of his family.
New Zealanders are often allowed to take sabbaticals and other unions, such as the Irish and Welsh, look after their players and restrict the amount of games that their top players play but that isn’t possible in England at the moment because the RFU didn’t take the opportunity 20 years ago to run the game centrally.
They could have seen the recent £275m offer from CVC as an opportunity to discuss the structure again and perhaps find a way to take back some control of the club game but, as things stand, the players are the clubs’ assets and they are being pulled in two different directions.
The boys are playing too much high intensity rugby. Peter O’Mahony has spoken out this week as well to say that it just isn’t going to possible to play 30 games per year moving forwards and he’s spot on. The game has moved on and we have to adapt and look after players better.
Growing up, all you dream of is playing for your country and I remember the pride, the buzz and the enjoyment when I won my first England cap. Nobody can take that away from you and Joe has experienced the feeling of pulling on that jersey with a red rose on it 59 times. I know it means a huge amount to him and he wouldn’t have made this decision without very good reason.
But, there is a lot more international rugby nowadays than there used to be, too much in my opinion and I think it’s saturated to a certain extent. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont spoke about changing the international calendar on the very same day that Joe was leaving the international fold and I do think something has to change.
Joe’s international retirement will cause others to stop and think and it’s an early warning sign to those in charge of the sport, especially in this country, that things can’t carry on as they are.
That’s not for Joe to worry about now though and the comments from people from all over the world since his announcement show just what high regard he’s held in.
Only Jason Leonard, Dan Cole and Phil Vickery have won more caps for England at prop and they all won theirs over a much longer period. He’s had a phenomenal international career and played with as much physical edge as anyone else I can think of.
He’s a real character as well. I’ve got to know him a bit over the past few months and he’s absolutely brilliant when you get to know him and he’s a player you absolutely detest playing against because he’s hard and uncompromising and England will really miss him.
He may have made a name for himself with a mohawk at the start but he’s played in a World Cup, won a Grand Slam and toured with the British & Irish Lions. His has been a stellar international career and we should celebrate that, while applauding the decision he’s taken to put his family first.
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