Owen Farrell’s England hiatus should give all of us pause for thought

<span>Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

It is a rare thing indeed for Owen Farrell to actively take over from Steve Borthwick when the pair are conducting an England press conference so, when he does, it pays to listen. “You are dealing with people, with human beings. Just because you’re saying stuff on your phone or behind a computer screen doesn’t make it acceptable,” Farrell said in the final week of England’s World Cup campaign, specifically addressing the online abuse Tom Curry to which had been subjected. “It seems to be going more and more this way, and I don’t think it’s 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.

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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.

Equally, he has been through the mill at Saracens, who spent a year in the Championship following the salary cap scandal, as demonstrated by the fact he has already played for them three times since the World Cup – uncharacteristically missing six kicks at goal last weekend. Farrell is not one to coast when on club duty.

Indeed, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the language used by Saracens in announcing Farrell’s decision – “to prioritise mental wellbeing” – is the same as when Ben Stokes, another England captain, took an indefinite break from cricket in 2021. The circumstances are different but it is alarming to think that two leaders of their national sides, who play with such an unbreakable will, with heart permanently attached to sleeve, have found it necessary to take their leave from their respective arenas.

It has never been altogether clear why Farrell does not receive the acclaim those who know him closely believe he should get. Theories range from his spikiness when dealing with referees, to the fact that he comes from a league background, his tackle technique, and to how he does not bring the razzle‑dazzle that Marcus Smith does, but Farrell has never needed nor craved adulation.

Owen Farrell runs with the ball during England’s World Cup bronze‑medal match against Argentina.
Owen Farrell runs with the ball during England’s World Cup bronze‑medal match against Argentina. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

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 as tough as they come, carved from northern granite, someone for whom taking a backward step is anathema. Of course, that makes his mental wellbeing no less important than anyone else’s and it is to his great credit that, irrespective of his abrasive persona, Farrell has announced his decision to step back. He will have discussed the decision with the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, who himself stepped away from the club almost a year ago before returning to guide the team to the Premiership title. So too Borthwick, who spoke of his captain’s “courage”. The hope must be that, like Stokes, Farrell feels ready to return when the time is right.

It was just last week that Farrell, now 32, strongly hinted he was keen to pursue a fourth World Cup in Australia in 2027. “I want to play as long as I can, if I’m excited about what I am doing,” he said. “I love what I do, I’m passionate about it and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.” And make no mistake, Farrell loves playing for England. In spite of the abuse that came his way over the summer during the furore that surrounded his red card against Wales, despite the stadium boos throughout the tournament after usurping George Ford at fly-half.

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Ultimately, there are few more divisive figures in the sport. For Farrell is adored by teammates and coaches who cannot understand the antipathy towards him, as summed up by Danny Care during the World Cup. “He won’t get the recognition he properly deserves until he stops playing which I still find incredible.”

It remains to be seen if Farrell has indeed stopped playing for England for good but in the meantime, Borthwick needs a new captain for the Six Nations. Courtney Lawes has retired from international duty, so Ellis Genge – England’s other vice‑captain at the World Cup – will be the favourite. He lost his place to Joe Marler during the tournament, however, so George Ford – who is the favourite to replace Farrell as fly‑half – comes into the equation. Maro Itoje is another contender ahead of a campaign in which England suddenly find themselves short on leadership, with Ben Youngs also retiring and Tom Curry sidelined for the season through 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.