If Farrell were to cross the Channel, RFU should understand that the world has progressed | Analysis
The start of a new year often brings the opportunity for change. For Owen Farrell and English rugby, this change could be the most drastic yet. There is speculation that Farrell, the former England captain, may join Racing 92 in Paris. This potential move has sparked intense discussion, making it the most talked about Anglo-French union since King Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary, married King Louis XII of France at the age of 18 in 1514.
Unfortunately, this last relationship only lasted three months before Louis passed away, potentially due to gout or his activities in the bedroom. It’s ironic that people claim modern rugby is harmful. Let’s hope that 32-year-old Farrell, if he moves to another country, can have a more relaxed experience and find the joy for life that caused him to take a break from the national team.
Regardless of his decision to stay or leave, the Saracens fly-half has delivered a sudden wake-up call to the English game in January. Is this a sign of things to come? Will the Premiership struggle to keep up with the wealthier Top 14 clubs, making even London’s most prized players susceptible to French takeover? And it’s not just the Top 14 that is causing concern. The recent sighting of Courtney Lawes at ProD2 club Provence – who have already secured the signing of his former British & Irish Lions teammate George North – is further evidence of the growing influence of oval-ball rugby.
If Farrell and Lawes decide to migrate south, they will be reunited with many of their former colleagues. Currently, it is feasible to assemble an entire XV of England-eligible players who have recently played in France, such as Henry Arundell, Jack Nowell, Christian Wade, Joe Marchant, Joe Simmonds, Dan Robson, Sam Simmonds, Zach Mercer (now playing for Gloucester), Jack and Tom Willis, David Ribbans, Junior Kpoku, Harry Williams, Kieran Brookes, and Jack Singleton. If Luke Cowan-Dickie had finalized his move to Montpellier, the options for the matchday squad would have been even more robust.
However, none of the mentioned names can match the potential appeal of Farrell. Similar to Harry Kane’s transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Bayern Munich, it highlights that the pursuit of success for England’s great leaders is no longer limited to their home country. The major distinction, however, is that Kane is still able to represent England in the upcoming Euros, despite his move to Bayern. Joining Bayern does not mean giving up his spot on the national team.
On the other hand, Farrell has a different perspective when it comes to going overseas. Currently, he has chosen not to represent England, citing the importance of his and his family’s mental health. However, if he were to move to France and feel revitalized, he may be interested in joining the 2025 Lions team under the coaching of his father, Andy. In that scenario, he could still be chosen for the Lions through the Top 14 league and potentially play a crucial role in securing a series victory, even if he is not England’s starting fly-half in the following year’s Six Nations.
The possibility of a swarm of large hornets being unleashed within the Rugby Football Union is a concerning scenario, especially if England is not performing well. The top executives of the union are already facing increasing pressure due to their failure to convince talented players like Arundell and potentially Farrell to stay in England. While it is understandable for professionals to make decisions based on what they believe is best for themselves and their families, it may reflect poorly on Twickenham’s leadership if two of England’s top talents are more interested in playing for Racing in France. Is the appeal of wearing a red rose on their chest not as strong?
Currently, the official stance of the RFU is firm: in order to play for England, one must be located in England, unless there are exceptional circumstances. It is evident that there is a goal to prevent a weakened Premiership and to maintain a high level of English talent. This is reasonable. However, it must be acknowledged that times have changed. Take cricket, for instance, where the top English players rarely participate in county games with a red or white ball. And what about South Africa, a team that has won multiple World Cups? The majority of their squad now resides overseas.
Could a compromise be reached to satisfy all parties involved, given the current financial constraints of RFU central funds? Perhaps by allowing senior team members the opportunity for a temporary leave abroad during their careers, or by granting the national team two additional picks per tournament for players over 30 who are not part of the Premiership. This would not only demonstrate understanding towards top players and recognize their loyalty, but also aid in decreasing Premiership expenses and supporting the national coach.
However, rigidity prevails instead. When individuals like Farrell, who has resided in St Albans since his teenage years, desire a change of pace from the ever-tightening bubble, where is the compassion in essentially compelling them to leave their homeland as well? If the goal is to set an example for others, as Voltaire (the experienced and esteemed French literary figure) once said, simply inform the next generation that they will be given the same freedom once they have earned 100 caps.
In 2009, Jonny Wilkinson made the decision to leave Newcastle and join a team in the south of France. This move proved successful as Wilkinson helped Toulon win three European titles and also played in 21 more games for England while living in the Mediterranean region. During this time, he was often captained by Steve Borthwick. If the RFU wants to show their support for a tired-looking Farrell and ease his upcoming departure, they can look to this past example.