Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home SportGlobal Rugby’s Dark Side: The Iniquitous Harassment of Owen Farrell

Rugby’s Dark Side: The Iniquitous Harassment of Owen Farrell

Ben Scott, Print Sport Editor, discusses Owen Farrell's decision to take a break from international rugby.
5 mins read
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Owen Farrell and Steve Borthwick, Saracens
Owen Farrell (right) playing for Saracens in 2012 with Steve Borthwick (left), now England head coach
Image: Charlie, via Flickr

Towards the end of 2023, England Rugby Captain and highest points scorer, Owen Farrell, took the decision to make himself unavailable for the 2024 Six Nations “in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing”. The 32-year-old decided to take a break from the international arena but continue playing for his club side, Saracens. But why has it come to this for Farrell?

Whether it’s due to his tough exterior or aggressive style on the pitch, Farrell has frequently taken the brunt of criticism from some segments of the public, initially from those outside of England. From the outside, he seemed unaffected by this, and he hasn’t shown any signs of struggle throughout the World Cup or since returning to Saracens. However, Farrell has made the brave decision to leave England temporarily in order to focus on his young family and his desire to play well into his 30s. This serves as a sobering reminder that even the most emotionally tough and unwavering of athletes can have vulnerabilities beneath the surface.

Farrell set a new record for England in terms of points scored during the World Cup, but was heckled in stadiums whenever he appeared on screens or had his name called out. Telegraph Sport says this was one of the many elements that went into his decision, with the added impact of the aftermath of his contentious red card in an August warm-up game. His critics might point to his somewhat decorated record of high tackles and sanctions, but Farrell has adapted to the ever-changing laws of the game whilst maintaining his legendary defence. 

Farrell set a new record for England in terms of points scored during the World Cup, but was heckled in stadiums whenever he appeared on screens or had his name called out.

At the announcement of his decision, fellow coaches and players flocked to support him. The England head coach Steve Borthwick said, “Everyone at England Rugby is fully behind Owen’s decision,” and marked the beginning of Farrell’s defence. 

Perhaps still hurting from his own criticism as England Captain following England’s pool-stage exit in their home World Cup in 2015, Chris Robshaw also came to Farrell’s aid, saying it’s “such a shame we criticise and go after our captain, when he is constantly one of England’s best players, role models and leading point scorer!”

Ben Youngs, England’s most capped men’s player, featuring at four World Cups, two of which alongside Farrell as his captain, further bolstered his support: “He is without doubt the best captain I’ve played under. He is brilliant. Everything he has done is fully committed to England, to helping the team, to being the best he can be. But also helping the team be the best they can be.” Youngs said Farrell’s treatment was “totally unacceptable”. “He is someone that has given everything that he can for his country and done a tremendous job. From just a rugby point of view, not from a friend’s point of view, I think it’s really sad.”

It was Farrell’s club director of rugby, Mark McCall, who was most blunt. McCall lashed out at the “shameful” treatment which might discourage Farrell from ever playing for his country again. Outraged at the “unfair” narrative around Farrell, McCall questioned the level of scrutiny his captain is continuously subjected to. With this in mind, the director of rugby pointed to how well Farrell played at the World Cup in spite of all the scrutiny. 

Former Saracens teammate and fellow England international Max Malins too was “shocked” at Farrell’s treatment: “I was up in the stands when the teams were getting read out and I heard that [booing]. It was a big surprise to me. I really don’t get it. For what he has done for England rugby – he is one of the greatest players to wear that shirt – and for some fans to treat him like that is ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, another England teammate, Kyle Sinckler, thinks other players will follow suit in taking a break from international rugby. The player has demanded rugby’s governing body to provide players with support as they deal with the demands of playing for England. Commenting on Farrell, Sinckler said “knowing Faz, I’ve got a massive amount of respect for him, I’ve been playing with him for the last eight, nine, ten years and for him to actually say ‘look, I’m not right’ then something must be up because that guy will go to battle no matter what.”

Considering the current climate of World Rugby, Sinckler may be right to point to a bigger problem. For instance, Farrell’s announcement follows a decision made by Wayne Barnes, the World Cup final referee, to quit officiating due to persistent online harassment and threats. Just recently too, former Exeter Chiefs and Scotland international, Stuart Hogg deleted his social media accounts due to online abuse.

If the England Captain cannot play in his home stadium without relentless harassment during matches, then English rugby must rethink itself.

Taking a step back from Farrell’s announcement, it is clear there is something bigger at fault. If the England Captain cannot play in his home stadium without relentless harassment during matches, or after them in the press, then English rugby must rethink itself. Owen Farrell has given everything to the sport at every level. Not only that but he may be the greatest English rugby player to grace the pitch. So why is he needing to take a break? 

If we cannot appreciate what we have or have had in Owen Farrell, then to me there is no surprise why rumours are circulating about a potential shock move to France for Racing 92. Whilst denied by the French side in the media, a move overseas could be exactly what Farrell needs. Moving overseas for more money and a different experience is not unchartered territory for fly-halves nearing the end of their career and Owen would join the greatest ever in Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter. It might too be in the interest of English rugby for a French holiday for Farrell as he would certainly become a more rounded player and return better.

Whatever your opinion on his captaincy or selection in the England side, you cannot deny his ability, leadership, experience, and most of all, the respect he holds from other players. Becoming somewhat of a villain in a global rugby narrative, Farrell nonetheless deserves respect, support, and decency from the average fan. In fact, if anything, the villain narrative is a testament to his ability. But if the harassment continues then English, or perhaps global rugby, will not progress.

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