How Owen Farrell, rugby’s man of steel, was pushed to breaking point

A red card shown for a high tackle in England's World Cup warm-up against Wales drew a spotlight on Farrell like never before

Owen Farrell of England lines up with teammates in the tunnel prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between England and Fiji at Stade Velodrome on October 15, 2023 in Marseille, France
Farrell has stepped away from international rugby to protect himself and his family Credit: Getty Images/Adam Pretty

It was two days before England’s Rugby World Cup warm-up match against Ireland in Dublin in August that the first warning sign rang out about Owen Farrell’s true state of mind.

Up to that point, Farrell had always exuded the aura of the ultimate Test-match animal, an unbreakable warrior unencumbered by self-doubt, less still impacted by critics, booing fans or the poisoned words of social media trolls.

Those who created the image of him as a pantomime villain from a tackling technique, that at times strayed beyond the laws of the game, and a combative demeanour were wasting their time trying to sling arrows at rugby union’s man of steel, it seemed.

This was the player, after all, who had been destined to play for his country. At the age of 14, his school, St George’s in Harpenden, had to apply for special dispensation from the Rugby Football Union for him to play for the school’s 1st XV.

He made his debut for Saracens aged just 17 years and 11 days – at the time an English record – while he was still at school and, within five years, he was representing the British and Irish Lions on their victorious tour of Australia – also touring New Zealand in 2017 and South Africa in 2021.

His retention as England captain by Steve Borthwick when he took over as head coach in January surprised some who thought change was needed to break the link with the Eddie Jones regime. Internally, the rationale was simple: Farrell’s presence alone in the squad raised standards of those around him.

Borthwick not only decided to build a team around him for the World Cup in France but valued his influence to such an extent that he was expected to play a key role in the following four-year cycle to the tournament in Australia in 2027.

It took his father, Andy, the Ireland head coach and two-time Super League Man of Steel, sitting in the media conference room in the Aviva Stadium, to remind us that his son was human after all.

“I’d probably get his mother up here to do an interview with you, and you’ll see the human side of the b------t that’s happening like, you know?” said Farrell senior.

“Or maybe get his wife to write a book on it, because then you’ll probably see the impact that it’s having on, not just the professional player, but the families and the human side that goes with it.

“I don’t normally say too much because of that type of reason 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 this is absolutely disgusting, in my opinion. Disgusting. I suppose those people that have loved their time in the sun get a few more days to keep going at that.”

The moment everything changed had come five days earlier, when Farrell had seen the yellow card he had received for a high tackle on Wales back-row Taine Basham upgraded to red during England’s victory at Twickenham.

Farrell's yellow card for a high tackle on Taine Basham was subsequently upgraded to a red Credit: Getty Images/David Rogers

It not only sparked an immediate and vitriolic backlash on social media, but the enormity of potentially missing out on what could be his last World Cup campaign for England also hit him hard, harder than most would have imagined.

The days that followed hardly helped his emotional state, with the independent disciplinary hearing first clearing him of a red card offence only for World Rugby to then announce on the morning of his father’s outburst that they had appealed the decision following an even more toxic pile-on on social media.

The “circus” had not only pierced Farrell’s gladiatorial exterior but also, as his father had revealed, breached the inner walls of the family.

And the halfway house that followed – with World Rugby’s appeal proving successful in reinstating the red card with a four-week suspension, not ending Farrell’s World Cup campaign but resulting in him missing England’s opening pool matches against Argentina and Japan – proved effectively to be something of a state of purgatory for Farrell.

He had to watch as first George Ford flourished in his absence and then, on his return, found that his role as a pantomime villain had been upgraded to the extent that he was booed by some England fans and those of their opponents, despite defying expectations by finishing third at the World Cup.

The length of the tournament did not help: the England players had effectively been together and away from home comforts since early July and while Farrell led the side admirably on his return – Borthwick’s side came within a late kick of reaching the final – it took its toll.

In the week after the semi-final defeat by South Africa, when his team-mate Tom Curry found himself at the centre of a social media storm after claiming he had been racially abused by Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi, Farrell gave a glimpse of his own torment when defending his flanker.

“Tom’s been first class this week like he always is,” said Farrell at the time. “What isn’t understandable, is the amount of abuse he’s got. The effect that has, not just on him, as well, is the bit that I and we really don’t understand. And I know it seems to be going more and more like this, but it shouldn’t be, it shouldn’t be.

“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. It seems to be going more and more this way, and I don’t think it’s acceptable.”

Asked if there was a solution to protecting the players from online abuse, Farrell said: “I don’t think that’s something for us to come up with. I think there’d be people who know what to do about it more than me who’d be able to advise us on that. Everybody’s different. It doesn’t make me look fondly on it, (or) look fondly on engaging with people outside of the people that are close to you. It doesn’t make me look fondly on doing that, no.”

Just a week ago, at the launch of the Investec Champions Cup at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Farrell seemed to indicate that he was ready to continue playing for England, including the prospect of becoming the most-capped men’s player. With 112 caps to his name, he needs just 16 more to overtake Ben Youngs.

“I love what I do, I’m passionate about it and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon,” he said. “I’m unbelievably lucky to do something that I’m really passionate about and I want to play as long as I can if I’m still excited about what I am doing.”

But behind the scenes the impact on his family was ruling his heart.

The prospect of an England meeting ahead of the Six Nations, which gets underway in February, focused the mind. England’s warrior captain instead has arguably made his most brave decision, to step away from representing his country to protect his family.

With the support of his life-long club Saracens, he will play on in the Premiership, but a question mark now hangs over whether he will ever pull on the red rose again. England fans who value his worth can only hope he ‘does a Ben Stokes’ and returns to the international scene. Those who did not are left to wonder if this was really what they wished for.