Owen Farrell is one of the most mentally resilient, determined individuals that I have ever come across. If he is willing to step away from international rugby, he will have thought about it long and hard because there’s nothing that means more to him than representing his country.
No player is under a more intense microscope than Owen. Everything he does attracts attention. Last weekend, Saracens beat Bristol playing some really good stuff and the headlines were about his missed kicks. Then his exchange with referee Luke Pearce went viral. I know he is England captain, but even so no one else gets that level of scrutiny.
Owen does not seek celebrity. He does not do social media. He does not want any part of that world, but it will wear anyone down. As much as players try not to see the headlines or what’s doing the rounds on social media, you are aware of it. Even if you are not on social media, it filters back to you through friends and family. It is always in the background. It grinds you down. It is like a slow drip-drip torture. No matter how mentally tough you are, that will eventually have an effect. Sadly in that context, I am not surprised by his decision.
The other thing I don’t think we should underestimate is the comedown effect from a World Cup. It was such a physical and emotional roller coaster for all those teams that reached the semi-finals and England players got just a week off before they are straight back into it with their clubs.
That was a long time away from family for those boys. Speaking to a few of them, you can feel their World Cup experience is still really raw and they just want to be at home. It feels like the Six Nations is just a week away. Some of them will struggle with the prospect of going back into camp. Since the World Cup I have been holding my breath because I just feel there are injuries waiting to happen.
A lot of players in the southern hemisphere will go off for a sabbatical after a World Cup. In England we have not really had that type of culture but it only takes one person to start a trend. There’s a few guys like Owen who have been on that treadmill for eight-plus years.
That would be exhausting for anyone but especially for Owen, being the one who sets the standards around training every single day. He does not have an off switch. But that’s what makes him such a brilliant captain. He sets the bar so high for himself and he lives it every day. It is such a rare quality but if you are always doing what is best for the team then you can never relax. I can see it being a relief to him to not have that on his plate for a bit.
I really hope that he benefits from the break in the long run and also maybe that this country can learn to appreciate him in his absence. During the World Cup, I just could not get my head around the fact that his place was always being questioned. Nothing is ever good enough. He was superb in the quarter-final and semi-final and yet there’s still a narrative being spun that he is somehow holding England back.
Owen will not have come to this decision lightly. He loves representing his country and by taking a break he is leaving the door for someone else to take his place. It is a risk. I always remember the 2013 England tour to Argentina during the Lions series. Stuart Lancaster told me to take some time off and I thought about it and felt it was a good idea. Next thing I know Christian Wade is on a plane from Argentina to Australia while I am sat on holiday thinking was this such a good idea? You never know but he will have weighed up those pros and cons in his head. We all know what Owen can offer. That is not going to change. It is now up to other people to take that opportunity while he is away.
We are not blessed with many of those types of captains who know how to press everyone’s buttons like Owen does. With Courtney Lawes retiring, I think Ellis Genge is next in line. He has a good working relationship with Steve from Leicester and he can set the emotional intensity like Owen does.
Jamie George and George Ford are also players that Steve trusts and both know how to lead a team. All those remaining senior players will need to take on a lot more responsibility.
I really do hope that this benefits everyone in the long run. Steve will be able to see how other players cope with that leadership responsibility, hopefully Owen comes back even more refreshed and maybe, just maybe, people can learn to appreciate him as a player and as a captain.