Thanks to the RFU for this story which ran on the RFU Website earlier this week
Emerging from the same Auckland school as Sonny Bill Williams, Steven Luatua and legendary All Black Bryan Williams, Marlen Walker comes from fine rugby stock.
But, it took this globetrotting prop years of wandering until he found his home, in Penzance, with the Cornish Pirates.
Walker has laced up his boots in New Zealand with Auckland Blues, with the Western Force in Australia, in the German Rugby-Bundesliga with TV Pforzheim and in England, first with Weston-super-Mare and since January 2015, at Pirates’ Mennaye Field.
The jump from a National 3 South West side to a fully professional Pirates team that are in fifth place in this year’s Greene King IPA Championship seemed a huge leap of faith for some back in 2015, but to the hard-working prop it was the natural progression to an early career that promised so much.
As a talented sportsman – he was national discuss and shot put champion for his age at 14, and played in Auckland U14 basketball and union – he faced a tough choice as a youngster: his adored rugby league, or the union to which his family is wed.
Union it was and, under the tutelage of ex-All Black wing Bryan Williams at Mount Albert Grammar, Walker worked his way into a New Zealand Secondary Schools side that included current All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty. “We played an Australian team with Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper and beat them quite comfortably.”
“It is one of the best moments I have ever had, it is probably the best team I have ever played in,” the 27-year-old said on his time in the black jersey.
“We were supposed to play Samoa and Tonga Under-18, but our tour got cancelled because the Tongan king died, so we played some senior sides – Manawatu, Counties Manukau and Waikato.
“They were almost like ‘B’ teams of Super Rugby franchises and we beat them by about 30 or 40 points.
“We then played an Australian team with Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper and beat them quite comfortably.”
What looked like an accelerated passage to the top took Walker to Auckland Blues Academy after leaving school where he endured a frustrating year of niggling injuries and missed opportunities.
“The injuries just came at very bad times – I was trialling for the NZ Under-19 and 20s and it was little things that you can’t afford when you’re competing with such good players,” the Pirates prop explained.
“I had a year at Auckland Blues and then went on holiday to Australia. I ended up staying there and played in the Western Force academy, but had more injury woe and lost a bit of love for the game.
“I decided to take a few years out and went travelling – that’s how I ended up here.”
A New Frontier
Walker’s uncle Robert Edwards spent time playing in Auckland, in Western Australia and for Leicester Tigers, while his cousin Dayna Edwards plays for Grenoble in the Top 14, but it was his partner Beth who paved the way for his stint in Germany with Pforzheim.
The pair met in England, but because of visa restrictions, they couldn’t return to Australia, nor were they allowed to remain in the UK together. Instead, it was to Germany and the small town near Stuttgart that they called home for two years.“It was a sink or swim experience, they didn’t speak any English, so I had to learn very quickly..."
Though few people would equate Germany and rugby, Walker insists the sport is growing and with a fully professional side, Pforzheim were a force to be reckoned with.
“We had ten Kiwis who were all fully professional, they would beat most National 2 teams,” he said. “There was one other pro side and the rest were amateur, so we would win most of our games and we would have a tight final with Heidelberger RK.
“Rugby is on the up there, they just need a bit more expertise. I did a bit of coaching and because the town I lived in had almost no English influence, I had to teach fully in German.
“It was a sink or swim experience, they didn’t speak any English, so I had to learn very quickly and I was lucky that another Kiwi guy that I knew from Australia was living there and spoke fluent German.”
Home sweet home
Walker’s return to the UK started with Weston-super-Mare RFC and a club that he credits with providing huge medical help on his return from Europe, meaning they hold a special place in his affections.
“I had aspirations to go higher, but I had come off a small knee injury and being in Germany with the language, it is quite tough to get the right diagnosis, care and rehab, so I was out for much longer than I should’ve been,” he said.
“Weston was me trying to get back into it and get fit, they had a good physio down there too. I was there for about three or four months, but I still try and get down there and watch when I can.”
Eyebrows were perhaps raised when Walker signed for Pirates – amid a front-row injury crisis – with the prop jumping two clear divisions to join the Championship team.
And while the rugby league enthusiast immediately felt at home in open play – he scored a hat-trick against Rotherham in January 2016 – it has been only through graft and the careful guardianship of veteran Alan Paver that he has managed to succeed in the set-piece.
“It was a very big step up. Around the field I had a handle on it, but it was more the emphasis on set piece that was the biggest hurdle for me.
“It took a lot of hard work, a lot of hours spent looking at film and talking to the coaches and them helping me.
“Having Paver was a massive help for me, he has made me a lot better and continually helps me.
“I definitely think I have repaid their faith, I was only meant to be here for six games and it was my 50th on the weekend. I have been here for a little while longer than I thought!
“It feels like home to me and whenever I go away I miss Cornwall, when I come back it is nice to be back.”
Further Reading: Marlen Walker Prop - The Whole Story >>