Joe Marler has urged the British and Irish Lions to add a specialist counsellor to their touring party for South Africa to help players and staff cope with an extended spell in their bubble environment.
Including next month’s training camp in Jersey and quarantine on return, the Lions will be away from home for over two months in an itinerary that culminates in a three-Test series against the world champions.
Warren Gatland has highlighted the importance of looking after the players’ wellbeing and Marler, who was overlooked for the tour, believes a squad therapist would be invaluable.
The England prop has spoken openly of his battle with depression and on Wednesday Sky Sports will screen his documentary ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’, which explores ways in which poor mental health can be managed.
“Maybe it would be worth taking an extra member of staff who is suited in that sphere. I think that would be a very good idea,” said Marler, a Lions tourist in 2017.
“And if they’re not going to take someone qualified, then they definitely need to have a conversation as a whole touring party at the start.
“Lions tours are tough enough as they are, being away from your families, but this one is in particular.
“You could nominate guys to be available to check in with for a chat, but players have got games to think about.
“Off the top of my head, there have been a couple of sports psychologists on tours but they tend to be focussed around the performance side of things. They’re not qualified in the clinical side.”
Marler has praised the responses of England head coach Eddie Jones and former Harlequins head of rugby Paul Gustard when discussing his mental health struggle with them.
The 30-year-old was selected for Jones’ most recent Six Nations squad but withdrew to be with his pregnant wife Daisy rather than stay in the squad’s bubble.
In 2016 he ruled himself out of the tour to Australia and two years later he announced his international retirement only to reverse the decision and take part in the 2019 World Cup.
“Paul Gustard was a big factor in helping me get out and get help when I had my meltdown, and he was a big driver in trying to find someone independent to help me. I’ll always be grateful to him for how receptive he was,” Marler said.
“Back in 2016 when I first stepped away from the England set-up and I remember sitting down and having a conversation with Eddie in Brighton, and seeing that sort of human side to him in understanding where I was at, that was massive.
“And then seeing it again in 2018, when I stepped away again, was also massive in that he understood and was there to be like ‘look, what can I do to help, can we get anyone involved to help you?’ He has always been massively receptive when I have spoken to him about it.
“That’s huge, especially when I had an opinion of him – prior to opening up to him – of this hard-core, in-your-face, take-no-s**t…
“He would probably have been the last person I’d think of to understand that actually I need some time away to work out what’s going on here.
“I thought that would be it, that it would be ‘mate, f**k off, the door’s f*****g closed for you now, f**k!’
“That’s exactly how I thought it was going to be, but to see that human side to him meant a lot to me.”
* Watch Joe Marler in ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’ on Sky Sports Arena and NOW at 4pm on Wednesday 12th May, and throughout the week on multiple Sky Sports channels.