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In just one month since the Rugby World Cup’s conclusion, the sport has driven both its finest referee and its leading Test points-scorer to dramatic extremes to protect their state of mind.
No sooner did Wayne Barnes retire amid a chorus of “vile” abuse over his decisions in the final than Owen Farrell, the recipient of torrid treatment from England fans in France, has seen fit to step away from the international game for an indeterminate period. If rugby did not already recognise the psychological toll suffered by those who reach its highest peaks, it surely does now.
The shock of Farrell’s absence from next year’s Six Nations, to “prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing”, cannot be overestimated. Here is a captain who, within seconds of a gut-wrenching defeat in a World Cup semi-final, said: “All that stands with me at the minute is how proud I am to be English.” For all the cavils about his form, the ferocity of his commitment to his country has never been in question. Until now, Farrell has distinguished himself through his armour-plating, his ability to remain stoic, stubborn and unyielding under a merciless glare.
He needs to be viewed through a different prism now. The language with which his Six Nations withdrawal has been announced, placing an emphasis on mental health, offers a reminder of how even the most implacable exterior can mask an acute vulnerability. Farrell, 32, is at his professional apex. But in a brutal trade, he can hardly predict with certainty how much longer at the top he might have. As such, a voluntary withdrawal from a major tournament speaks volumes about how intolerable the outside noise has become.
It feels inadequate just to blame social media for Farrell’s admission of pain. Here was a player who largely protected himself from rancid online vitriol by having little to do with that realm in the first place. When James Haskell tried to involve him in daft videos during England’s tour of Australia in 2016, he begged his incorrigible team-mate to turn the camera off. But it also seemed as if the targeting of Farrell extended far beyond the confines of Twitter or YouTube. It had a tangible dimension, not least when his name was read out in the quarter-final in Marseille to a chorus of derision.
The mystery of why Farrell, a figure with the second largest points haul in Test history behind Dan Carter, is not more loved in his homeland has endured for years. Myriad explanations have been advanced, from his lack of pyrotechnics with ball in hand to his sometimes dubious tackling technique. There are other potential theories involving his rugby league background and his saturnine Wigan persona, and yet all are rendered redundant now. The debate with which rugby must grapple is not why Farrell struggles for popularity, but why he perceives no other option but to walk away, with no timetable for a comeback, from a job he cherishes.
Even the most teak-tough competitors have a tipping point. We saw this with Ben Stokes, who would produce indomitable displays at the crease but who took a six-month break from cricket in 2021 after a series of panic attacks. He explored the triggers for his breakdown with pitiless clarity in a documentary with Sir Sam Mendes, disclosing how the death of his father Ged had briefly removed his reason for playing. “You can’t hide behind it, you can’t help the way you feel,” he said. “The more you try to compress it down, the worse it’s going to be.”
It is a stretch to picture Farrell submitting to such a confessional with an Oscar-winning director. He and his wife Georgie are intensely private, eschewing any Instagram projection of their family life. But months of malevolence from the stands have clearly taken a toll. The ordeal reached a peak ahead of last month’s game with Fiji, when, with Farrell still taking heat for a penalty time-out against Samoa, his very presence on the team-sheet drew loud boos. Richard Wigglesworth, England’s attack coach, sprang to his defence, saying: “The tallest trees seem to catch the most wind. He has proven himself time and again, and I don’t understand why in England we feel the need not to celebrate that.”
On the surface, Farrell looked impervious to this tall-poppy syndrome. He shrugged off the abuse as an occupational hazard. He upheld the age-old wisdom never to turn on the supporters. But the impression today is that this was all a carefully-constructed facade, that behind the robotic answers lurked a tortured soul.
It is a startling realisation. Only last week, Farrell was insisting bullishly that he could carry on until the 2027 World Cup. Now there are no guarantees about when he will next represent England at all. Somewhere along the line, the scrutiny to which he has grown accustomed has morphed into toxic disdain, with corrosive effects for the man himself. Let this be a watershed for rugby: a moment to appreciate that openly ridiculing a world-class talent is not some harmless parlour game, but a needless cruelty with an all-too-human cost.