Owen Farrell’s England exit shows elite sport’s tipping point – vital lessons must be learned

Owen Farrell will take a break from international rugby during next year’s Six Nations  (Getty Images)
Owen Farrell will take a break from international rugby during next year’s Six Nations (Getty Images)

And so another top athlete steps off the treadmill. On Wednesday afternoon, a bombshell landed, Owen Farrell, the England captain, electing to step away from international duty and miss next year’s Six Nations to prioritise his “mental wellbeing”.

The news came as a complete shock. Only last week, Farrell was expressing a desire to press on in an England shirt for as long as possible while talking up his enjoyment of the game. The fly half has been in outstanding form for club and country for much of the last six months, and his pride in wearing the badges of England and Saracens shines through on and off the pitch.

It is a courageous call from a courageous character, though Farrell is far from the first sportsperson to conclude that they need a break from it all. From Naomi Osaka to Simone Biles, the all-encompassing pursuit of excellence and accompanying pressures of elite sport stress the brain in a way that even these sporting immortals struggle to endure.

Ronnie O’Sullivan took a break from snooker this month citing “mental fatigue and stress”; Ben Stokes had to take six months out of cricket after suffering panic attacks. These are greats of their respective games pushed to breaking point by the ever quicker and more relentless whir of the sporting treadmill, the chase for commercial expansion resulting in an unceasing crowding of the calendar.

It has never been tougher to be a professional athlete. Each and every moment from a match can be clipped up and replayed, each error magnified in excruciating detail, each moment of criticism or commentary available to be made and received instantaneously. Where in the past a top sportsperson might have been able to disappear into everyday life or get away from it all, now there is an insatiable demand for content and connection, fans feeling like they must know each and every detail about an athlete’s life. Total escape is an impossibility.

From the WTA’s top players to county cricketers, issues of incessance have become a prevailing topic of the sporting discourse. The human mind is complex and the challenges shouldered by each individual are subtly different, but the increased prevalence of cautionary tales of burnout should prompt sporting bodies to rethink and try to prevent more stars reaching supernova.

The timing of Farrell’s break is surely not a coincidence, with a tweaked schedule ensuring there are no Premiership matches during the Six Nations. If he wishes, the 32-year-old can take almost two months away from competitive action, the sort of break simply not afforded to top rugby players anymore.

As an England starter and likely Lions tourist in 2025, Farrell’s next 18 months will probably include stints away from home in New Zealand and Australia, on top of a packed domestic calendar. Missing the Six Nations would not have been a decision Farrell took lightly, but it feels a natural time to take a sabbatical of sorts – time out from the game now may allow, say, another Lions tour and World Cup appearance, while the chance to be with his two young children will surely be highly-valued by a devoted family man.

Saracens’ Owen Farrell before the Gallagher Premiership match at StoneX Stadium last weekend (PA)
Saracens’ Owen Farrell before the Gallagher Premiership match at StoneX Stadium last weekend (PA)

But, of course, there is more at play. The flak Farrell has been forced to face since embarking on his professional career is above that of any other rugby player, a lightning rod for criticism in success and failure despite being a figure who has never sought celebrity and eschewed off-pitch comment.

Farrell’s father, Ireland coach Andy, hit out at the “disgusting circus” around his son during a citing process in August. Even to an individual as guarded as Farrell, all of the noise will have broken through. The vilification of the fly half resulted in an unpleasant moment before the World Cup quarter-final against Fiji, when England supporters in Marseille booed their record points-scorer’s name.

As captain of England, Farrell is a prominent target – his head placed above the parapet by dint of his position, amplified by his confrontational character on the pitch. But he is far from the only individual in rugby to have faced such criticism.

Take Wayne Barnes, referee of this year’s World Cup final, who has retired from officiating with a warning about the sport’s blame culture. Or how about his colleague Tom Foley, who revealed this week that threats had been sent to his children’s school after decisions he made as television match official (TMO) in that Paris final. A number of top rugby players, including Freddie Steward, have taken themselves off the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Owen Farrell shone for England at the Rugby World Cup in France (PA)
Owen Farrell shone for England at the Rugby World Cup in France (PA)

Farrell – an intensely private person – is an infrequent user of social media, but expressed his distaste for the evolution of the culture when teammate Tom Curry was targeted after making an allegation of a racial slur in the World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa.

“I can’t understand the amount of abuse he’s got,” Farrell said of Curry. “It seems to be going more and more like this, but it shouldn’t be. You are dealing with people, with human beings. Just because you are saying stuff on your phone or behind a computer screen doesn’t make it acceptable.

“It seems to be going more this way, and it’s not acceptable. I don’t think it’s for us to come up with an answer to that. But it doesn’t make me look fondly on engaging with people outside of those close to me.”

This is not just a sporting problem, obviously. But if sport’s great strength is to bring people together, its worst tribalistic tendencies have only been amplified in this era of polarisation. Social media has empowered the faceless critic, a cloak of anonymity thrown over those who abuse and attack.

Owen Farrell says some critics forget they are ‘dealing with people, with human beings’ (PA)
Owen Farrell says some critics forget they are ‘dealing with people, with human beings’ (PA)

As forms of communication contract, nuance is lost; the invective sounds loudest. In the chase for attention, some seem to feel the need to express an opinion on everything, resulting in hurried messages sent in haste without due consideration. Drops of vitriol and venom create a sea of toxicity; a fostered culture of one-upmanship creates a sort of race to the bottom as users rush to add their own poisoned pennyworth.

No doubt, Farrell will be back. But that does not change a broken culture of criticism and congested calendar that have combined to push him to this situation. Professional athletes, like all of us, are fragile – that a figure as resilient as Farrell has felt the need to step away should be a wake-up call to all.