CHRIS FOY: Owen Farrell’s shock decision came from nowhere and could end his England career… the toxic backlash has taken a toll on the man behind the iron mask

What a shock. It came from nowhere. There hadn’t been a hint of it; that Owen Farrell would opt to pause his Test career – if not effectively end it.

Whether it caught Steve Borthwick off-guard is unclear, but when the England head coach held one-to-one discussions with players on Tuesday, it culminated in an almighty state of upheaval, after he had spoken to his captain.

A group of senior players are believed to have had additional talks with the RFU and Farrell was not involved. 

Whether he is ever involved again, only time will tell.

Owen Farrell to take a step away from England duty to prioritise his family’s mental well-being

England head coach Steve Borthwick criticised the 'personal attacks' on his character

England head coach Steve Borthwick criticised the ‘personal attacks’ on his character

The explanation for his decision has sparked a wave of soul-searching within the sport, as Saracens revealed that Farrell has removed himself from international rugby to ‘protect his and his family’s mental well-being’. 

It appears that this is the unexpected fall-out from months and years of a public backlash which reached a toxic peak during the summer.

When Farrell was sent off for his high tackle on Wales flanker Taine Basham, only to initially escape a ban – despite his ‘previous’ – there was a savage reaction, primarily on social media, which led to a re-trial and a suspension. That in turn led to an angry verdict from two Test coaches.

The first of them was his father, Andy, in charge of Ireland, who said: ‘I don’t normally say too much about my son. But what I probably would say at this moment in time is that the circus that’s gone on in and around all of this is absolutely disgusting, in my opinion. Disgusting.’

Echoing this outraged sentiment, England head coach Steve Borthwick added: ‘The commentary has moved from an issue around the tackle to personal attacks on the character of the man, which I think is just wrong. 

‘He’s a team-mate of the players, he’s a member of our squad and he’s the captain of our squad. We all feel for him. We feel it when one of our group is receiving these personal attacks.’

Later, when Owen Farrell was speaking up in defence of his England team-mate, Tom Curry – who found himself in the eye of another storm, after the World Cup semi-finals – he offered some views on social-media hostility which seem pertinent now. ‘It doesn’t make me look fondly on it,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t make me look fondly on engaging with people outside of the people who are close to you.’

By then, he had become entrenched as a pantomime villain at the World Cup, even in front of his children when he was overhauling Jonny Wilkinson’s national points-scoring record, against Chile in Lille. He went on to lead England to within a few minutes of reaching the World Cup Final and he was the top points-scorer at the tournament, but he was widely, constantly castigated.

Writing after the final weekend of the global showpiece, this observer suggested that the campaign of criticism had been horribly excessive. It became a reflex. Whenever his name was read out or Farrell appeared on the big screens in stadiums, he was loudly booed – as much by England fans as by anybody else.

The fly-half has had unbelievable success with England, Saracens and the Lions 

The RFU and other international sides should look at Farrell’s situation with real concern

The RFU and other international sides should look at Farrell’s situation with real concern 

This is someone who has always presented a stern, snarling face to the world, but there has been a slight view of Farrell’s human side of late. Having married long-time girlfriend Georgie in 2018, he is the father of two sons, Tommy and Freddy; aged four and two. He has gradually been more open about life away from rugby.

Speaking at last season’s Six Nations launch, the veteran playmaker said: ‘I’ve got two little lads that love running around, going to the park, anything outside. The amount of time you spend away from them can be hard.’


Ellis Genge (Bristol, prop)

One of three England vice-captains at the World Cup behind Owen Farrell. The others were Courtney Lawes and George Ford but Lawes has now retired from international rugby. Genge is the obvious contender to take on the role. He has been skipper before but will not have fond memories of doing it having been in charge for the 53-10 hammering by France in this year’s Six Nations.

George Ford (Sale, fly-half)

Ford will almost certainly start the Six Nations at No 10 in Farrell’s absence and could be his replacement as captain, too. He is loved by head coach Steve Borthwick and the pair teamed up with Leicester to win the Premiership in 2022. Borthwick may well prefer a forward as leader but don’t rule out Ford.

Jamie George (Saracens, hooker)

As a club and international team-mate of Farrell’s, George is never really given official leadership duties, but his experience and undoubted quality mean he is a man who could easily step into the void. George has seen it all at international level and is a certain starter.

The dramatic news which emerged on Wednesday afternoon can be seen as an extension of that; of a normal person behind the (iron) mask, who has been unsettled by abuse. It is different with Saracens. He will continue as captain at the club where he is embraced and valued. Any hostility at domestic level is less pronounced; smaller. It is all bigger and louder and harsher at Test level.

Farrell lives in Harpenden near the Saracens training ground, which allows for a good routine with a young family, less time away and less volatility in his working life. The modern treadmill is gruelling for players and this Test centurion is 32, so he may step out for a while, refresh and go again, or decide the extra time and space is too precious to give up on.

Yet, he is a rugby obsessive who watches both codes extensively in his spare time. He also enjoys the odd game of golf and walking the dog – reinforcing the impression of a normal bloke behind an abnormal status and profile.

This will cause alarm at the RFU and beyond. If work-load and abuse are so extreme that Farrell – a tough, resilient sportsman – feels he has to step out, to protect himself and his family, what does that say about the demands on England’s finest? Is it all too much now? Will others follow suit?

At a time of persisting doubt about the financial landscape and with rich French and Japanese clubs circling, perhaps more of England’s leading men will decide that they can do without the aggravation of representing their country, if it leads to being vilified. Criticism of sub-standard performances is a fact of sporting life, but character assassination should not be.

It was too much in the virtual world in the summer and too much in the stadiums at the World Cup. A line was crossed. It became a brutal ritual and was unsavoury to behold.

Farrell was sent off at Twickenham in August for a high tackle on Wales' Taine Basham

Farrell was sent off at Twickenham in August for a high tackle on Wales’ Taine Basham 

Ireland coach Andy Farrell slammed the fall-out from his son Owen’s red card controversy

Ireland coach Andy Farrell slammed the fall-out from his son Owen’s red card controversy

Borthwick now has dilemmas to address, two months before naming a team for England’s next Test – against Italy in Rome on February 3. 

Genge is nominally the leadership front-runner, as he was vice-captain to Farrell and the other one of those, Courtney Lawes, is now retired. 

But Jamie George, George Ford and Maro Itoje could be considered too.

Ford is highly likely to be wearing 10 the next time England play, unless the management abandon the experiment of deploying Marcus Smith at full-back and set up a renewed playmaker contest.


August 12

Sent off in World Cup warm-up against Wales at Twickenham for a high tackle on Taine Basham — after his yellow card was upgraded to red by the sport’s new ‘bunker’ system. In a convoluted appeals process, the sending-off is overturned and then reinstated, and he is served with a four-match ban.

September 23

Returns after his ban for the third match of the World Cup, and kicks 16 points in a 71-0 demolition of Chile as England all but qualify for the quarter-finals with a match to spare.

October 7

In England’s 18-17 win over Samoa, Farrell passes Jonny Wilkinson to become his nation’s leading points scorer when his conversion and two penalties take him to 1,186.

October 15

Picked ahead of George Ford by head coach Steve Borthwick for the quarter-final against Fiji — but is booed by his own fans in Marseille when his name is announced. Answers his critics in style, nailing seven of his nine kicks, including a drop goal, as England reach the semi-finals. His kicks account for 20 of the points in a 30-24 win.

October 21

Farrell’s heroic display in the semi-final — not missing a kick as all of England’s 15 points come from his boot — ends in agony as a late penalty sees South Africa emerge victorious by just one point.

November 29

Saracens announce the England captain will miss the Six Nations to