Owen Farrell has received the full backing of England head coach Steve Borthwick after deciding to take a break from international rugby to prioritise his and his family’s mental health.
It means that England captain Farrell, who has led his country at the last two World Cups and won 112 caps, will not be available for this season’s Six Nations Championship.
In his absence – no date has been announced for a Test return – and following the international retirement of Courtney Lawes, Bristol prop Ellis Genge is a probable successor as skipper.
England captain Owen Farrell will take a break from international rugby to prioritise his and his family's mental well-being
Owen has the full support of everyone at England Rugby 🌹
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 29, 2023
George Ford would be favourite to take Farrell’s fly-half role for the Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome on February 3, with Marcus Smith also a contender.
Borthwick said: “Everyone at England Rugby is fully behind Owen’s decision.
“Since making his debut, he has been an integral part of the England set-up for over a decade, and the demands on elite athletes are extremely challenging.
“He is an exemplary player, captain and leader and always gives his all for his country.
“It is with typical courage that Owen has made this decision to open up in this manner.
“Together with all of us at England Rugby, I will do everything I can to ensure that he has the support he requires going forward.”
In a statement announcing the surprise – and sobering – development, Farrell’s club Saracens said: “Owen Farrell has decided to take a break from international rugby in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.
“This means he will not be available for selection for the 2024 Six Nations.
Owen Farrell will take a break from international rugby to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being. Owen has the full support of the RPA. pic.twitter.com/q9JvPxPW90
— The RPA (@theRPA) November 29, 2023
“He will continue to play for Saracens and captain the club.
“As always, Owen will have the full support of everyone at the club.”
The Rugby Players’ Association, meanwhile, added: “Owen Farrell has the unconditional support of everyone at the RPA.
“He is a leader and figurehead in the English game, but is also an individual, husband and father. His well-being comes first, and we will support him in every way we can, going forward.”
Former England head coach Sir Clive Woodward, who guided the team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, praised Farrell for his “brave and correct decision”.
Woodward told the Daily Mail: “It is also with great sadness and disappointment that Farrell’s move comes as no great surprise considering the extraordinary weight his shoulders have been forced to bear and the unjust criticism he has had to face. Only he will know how much influence this had over his decision.
“Farrell is one of England’s greatest ever players. He’s the national captain and the country’s record points scorer. He has had unbelievable success with England, Saracens and the Lions.
“But that has not been enough for some. For whatever reason, he has never had the praise he’s deserved. In fact, he’s ended up being criticised a lot — often personally and unjustly. I wonder whether that has had an impact.
“I hope, with the decision made and the outpouring of support he has received, Farrell can now look ahead with new-found freedom.
“I hope Farrell sets the tone and inspires new thinking in this area. Why is taking a sabbatical not more common?”
I’ve said it many times @owen_faz is our captain and potentially England’s greatest ever player. The level of abuse he receives is sickening. It came up on the @standardsport pod this week but I really think it’s time for player sabbaticals such are the demands of the game today. pic.twitter.com/0ZTEQS7wuz
— Lawrence Dallaglio (@dallaglio8) November 29, 2023
Ex-England captain Lawrence Dallaglio hit out at the level of “sickening” abuse Farrell had been subjected to.
Dallaglio posted on social media: “I’ve said it many times @owen_faz (Farrell) is our captain and potentially England’s greatest ever player.
“The level of abuse he receives is sickening. I really think it’s time for player sabbaticals, such are the demands of the game today.”
Farrell led England to a third-place World Cup finish in France last month, but the tournament build-up proved far from plain-sailing for him.
He was sent off in a World Cup warm-up game against Wales, only for an independent disciplinary panel to cause an outcry when it cleared him following a shoulder-led tackle to the head of Wales forward Taine Basham, which was expected to result in a significant ban.
Farrell’s father – Ireland head coach Andy Farrell – labelled media coverage of the episode “a circus”, while Borthwick said in August: “The commentary around it seems to move from an issue around the tackle to personal attacks on the character of the man, which I think is just wrong.”
Farrell, 32, was subjected to considerable attacks on social media, and at times during the World Cup he was booed by sections of the crowd during England games.
Having made his England debut in 2012, Farrell has amassed an England record 1,237 points, recently overtaking Jonny Wilkinson.
He captained England at the World Cup in the 2019 and 2023 tournaments and has also featured on three British and Irish Lions tours.