Owen Farrell might not play for England again. James Crombie/INPHO

Fresh start in France can reinvigorate Farrell after constant abuse took its toll

The out-half has decided for a new challenge in France after feeling the need to step away from Test rugby.

IN FEBRUARY 2012 Stuart Lancaster sat down to name his first England team and penciled in a 20-year-old Owen Farrell for his Test debut. Eleven years later the pair are set to be reunited in Paris following yesterday’s confirmation Farrell will swap Saracens for Racing 92 next season.

It potentially means the end of one of the greatest Test careers in English rugby. Farrell will not be eligible for England selection during his stay in the French capital and while he could return to the Premiership at the end of his two-year deal, the 32-year-old’s Test rugby days may well be done. 

It’s understable why Farrell felt it was time for a new challenge as the last year has been one of the most challenging of his career. 

The Saracens player has long been a divisive figure among supporters and the media and while he’s well used to criticism, his red card for a high tackle on Taine Basham in England’s World Cup warm-up meeting with Wales last August saw the floodgates open. Farrell looked devastated on the sideline as he watched his yellow card get upgraded to red. It wasn’t the first time his tackling technique was brought into question and as a repeat offender Farrell knew he would come in for heavy scrutiny. 

The red card was subsequently rescinded but after a series of disciplinary hearings and appeals, the out-half was banned for England’s opening World Cup fixtures.

freddie-steward-ellis-genge-and-owen-farrell-after-being-yellow-carded Farrell received a red card against Wales last August. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Online, some of the commentary stepped over the line and became personal. His father, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, usually avoids talking about Owen with the media but on this occasion he delivered a strikingly impassioned defence of his son, describing the ‘circus’ around the incident as ‘absolutely disgusting’.

“I’d probably get his mother up here to do an interview with you, and you’ll see the human side of the bullshit that’s happening,” Farrell Sr. said ahead of Ireland’s World Cup warm-up fixture with England.

It couldn’t have been any clearer the issue was genuinely affecting the Farrell family.  And still, things took a further uncomfortable turn during the World Cup as England supporters began to regularly boo their captain upon his return to Steve Borthwick’s team.

The booing went on throughout the tournament as a largely unfancied England side went all the way to the semi-finals, ultimately finishing third.

Post-World Cup, that ugly treatment has continued to follow him with Saracens. In December, Bulls head coach Jake White apologised to Farrell after he was roundly booed during the English side’s Champions Cup defeat in Pretoria. It’s worth remembering this came after the bombshell news Farrell was to step away from international rugby “in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.”

His England teammates had been shocked to witness what Farrell had been subjected to. Marcus Smith admitted it was “quite scary” to see someone of his status feel the need to step away, while Max Maillins said it was “worrying in a sense”, stating “you won’t find many people with a mentally tougher approach than Owen.”

englands-owen-farrell-with-his-bronze-medal-after-the-rugby-world-cup-2023-bronze-final-match-at-the-stade-de-france-in-paris-france-picture-date-friday-october-27-2023 Farrell was regularly booed by some England supporters during last year's World Cup. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Add in the various less high-profile incidents of abuse from the stands which Farrell has been subjected too, and perhaps it should have come as no surprise when reports first emerged he was considering leaving English rugby altogether.

Yet moves like this don’t often happen in the sport. At 32, Farrell – who can also play centre – is still at the peak of his powers and would almost certainly have been England’s starting 10 in the upcoming Six Nations. He’s been a Saracens player for 16 years and is club captain. England, and indeed Sarries, are not the forces of old but both have realistic chances of winning silverware over the next couple of seasons. Both will be poorer for Farrell’s absence. 

Farrell will be on a good salary in France but the move is one motivated by personal reasons rather than financial gain. That Farrell has felt the need to remove himself from the negative attention he receives in England is a bad look for the sport. It also comes just months after referee Tom Foley and the recently-retired Wayne Barnes outlined the horrific abuse they have received online. 

World Rugby have made genuine attempts to combat the issue of abuse but it is one that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Hopefully the Racing move reinvigorates Farrell and he can enjoy his rugby again. The out-half is still one of the best operators around and could thrive under under the guidance of his former England boss Lancaster, who did so much impressive work in rebuilding Leinster’s attack. 

englands-owen-farrell-and-head-coach-stuart-lancaster-celebrate-during-the-rbs-6-nations-match-between-england-and-wales-at-the-twickenham-stadium-in-london-on-march-9-2014-pic-charlie-forgham-bai Current Racing head coach Lancaster handed Farrell his first Test cap in 2012. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

His signing is another signal of Racing’s ambition to build something special under Lancaster, having also welcomed Springbok captain Siya Kolisi to the club after the World Cup.

Lancaster has guided Racing to the summit of the Top 14 table with 12 rounds played but his team only limped into the Champions Cup knockout rounds with one win from their four pool games.

The Top 14 is a demanding league but Farrell is a physical, robust 10. This season alone he has played 15 games for club and country and only once didn’t last the full 80 minutes. Last season he clocked up 26 appearances and averaged 76 minutes per game. 

It is unclear what his future looks like in terms of England but for now, the next two years appear hugely exciting as Racing look to close the gap on France and Europe’s elite club sides. For the neutral fan, it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to a new country and new league. 

He will still be a pantomime villain for some French crowds but the scrutiny will be less intense and his young family can look forward to life in one of Europe’s great cities. 

There is always the possibility Farrell will return to England after his two years in France and resurrect his Test career ahead of the 2027 World Cup in Australia, and it is not yet clear if he will be considered for selection for the 2025 British and Irish Lions tour, where Andy Farrell will be head coach. Should he perform to his usual high standards with Racing, his father would surely be tempted to get him on board.

Those are all questions for further down the road but for now English rugby must prepare for life without one of the most influential players the country has ever produced.

It’s a sorry way for Farell to exit. Hopefully he can thrive again in France.

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