The break in Owen Farrell’s time with England should make us all stop and consider | Gerard Meagher
Owen Farrell rarely takes over from Steve Borthwick during England press conferences, making it worth paying attention when he does. In the last week of England’s World Cup campaign, Farrell addressed the issue of online abuse directed towards Tom Curry, emphasizing the importance of treating others with respect regardless of the platform. He expressed concern over the increasing prevalence of such behavior and stated that it is not acceptable.
The explanation provided as to why Farrell has made the decision to take a break from international rugby does not extend beyond “prioritising his and his family’s wellbeing” but his words on the eve of his side’s bronze‑medal match against Argentina resonate. It was always to Eddie Jones’s astonishment that Farrell was not held in higher esteem, that England supporters did not feel the love for him, but the hate he has come to receive is beyond the pale.
As ever, there will not be one singular reason for Farrell’s decision, rather a combination of factors, but the treatment he has come in for lately is likely to have contributed at least in part. It cannot help but grind anyone down. So, too, an unrelenting schedule: England began World Cup preparations on 12 June and finished their campaign in late October. Barring a couple of ankle injuries, the odd enforced rest and a few matches missed through suspension, Farrell has been going full bore for England pretty much since his debut in 2012.
Similarly, he has faced many challenges at Saracens, who were relegated to the Championship for a year due to a salary cap controversy. This is evident in the fact that he has already participated in three games for them since the World Cup, where he surprisingly missed six attempts at goal last weekend. Farrell is not one to take it easy while playing for his club.
It is not a mere chance that the Saracens used the phrase “to prioritise mental wellbeing” when announcing Farrell’s decision. This is the same language used when Ben Stokes, another England captain, took a break from cricket in 2021. While the situations are distinct, it is concerning that two leaders of their national teams, known for their unwavering determination and emotional investment in the game, have felt the need to step away from their roles.
The reason for Farrell not receiving the recognition he deserves is not entirely clear. Some theories suggest it could be due to his behavior towards referees, his background in a different league, his tackling technique, or his lack of flashy play like Marcus Smith. However, Farrell has never sought or required adoration from others.
Ambivalence treated him just fine and he has often made clear that public opinion of him counts for little compared to that of the people close to him. But what Borthwick described as “personal attacks” this summer, what his father Andy Farrell termed “a disgusting circus”, would take its toll on anybody. Kevin Sinfield, England’s defence coach, likened the criticism to that which David Beckham received following his sending-off at the 1998 Fifa World Cup.
Farrell is a resilient individual, with a strong character and determination, who does not back down easily. Despite this tough exterior, his mental well-being is still just as important as anyone else’s. It is commendable that, despite his confrontational personality, Farrell has announced his intention to temporarily step away from his responsibilities. He likely discussed this decision with Mark McCall, the director of rugby for Saracens, who himself took a break from the team last year before coming back to lead them to victory in the Premiership. Borthwick also praised Farrell’s bravery in making this decision. Hopefully, like Stokes, Farrell will feel ready to return when the time is appropriate.
Last week, Farrell, who is now 32 years old, strongly implied that he wants to participate in his fourth World Cup in Australia in 2027. He stated, “I want to continue playing for as long as possible, as long as I am still enthusiastic about it.” He added, “I am deeply devoted to my profession and I do not anticipate slowing down anytime soon.” Undoubtedly, Farrell has a strong affection for playing for England. Despite the criticism he faced over the summer regarding his red card against Wales and the negative reactions from the crowd during the tournament after taking over George Ford’s position as fly-half.
In the world of sports, there are few individuals who stir up as much controversy as Farrell. While he is greatly loved by his teammates and coaches, many others cannot comprehend the negativity directed towards him. As Danny Care stated during the World Cup, “It’s astonishing that he won’t receive the recognition he truly deserves until he retires from playing.”
It is uncertain whether Farrell has permanently retired from playing for England. As a result, Borthwick must select a new captain for the upcoming Six Nations. With the retirement of Courtney Lawes, the top candidate is likely Ellis Genge, who was England’s other vice-captain at the World Cup. However, Genge was replaced by Joe Marler during the tournament, so George Ford, who is expected to take over as fly-half, could also be considered. Maro Itoje is also a potential option as England faces a shortage of leadership with Ben Youngs retiring and Tom Curry out for the season due to injury.
The fact that Farrell has amassed 111 caps since his debut, that Borthwick wasted no time in announcing him as captain for the Six Nations and the World Cup, and that he came straight back into the side in France when his latest suspension ended, means there will be a huge void for England to fill in the coming months. Farrell will have been only too aware of that and it will have made his decision all the more difficult. That he still felt compelled to make it is sobering.