Owen Farrell's struggles show it's time sport lowered the barriers

RIATH AL-SAMARRAI: England captain Owen Farrell is a man of steel… his struggles show it’s time for sport to lower the barriers

  • Owen Farrell has made himself unavailable for next year’s Six Nations
  • The England captain has made the decision to prioritise his mental well-being
  • Farrell has always been a man of steel, but has now admitted he is struggling 

Owen Farrell is a hard man. Always was and still is, but it can be hard to truly know a hard man. 

I don’t know Farrell, not personally, and we’ve never spoken properly. But I know he’s hard, because we can all see that he’s hard.

Maybe it’s his glare. It’s a hard man’s glare. Or maybe it’s the layering of muscle and what we say about the way he tackles — the hard hits of the hard son of a hard rugby man. A hard son who often seems indifferent to what we think about any of it.

But here’s the thing about hard men. Hardness can be a shaper of narratives. Hardness obscures. Hardness deflects. Light doesn’t pass through hard objects and so we cannot see what is inside them. And we rarely saw what was inside Farrell — he isn’t the sort to offer guided tours of his soul and we all took the hardness of his shell for granted.

A colleague offered an interesting thought on it when we chatted on Friday, on the back of the most startling sporting story of the week, when we learned Farrell would be taking an indefinite break from international rugby to rebuild his mental health. The phrase he used is that Farrell is a player’s captain, not a media captain, with the point being that this was a guy who doesn’t quite see the value in letting you in.

Owen Farrell has always been a hard man but has now chosen to not play in the 2024 Six Nations to focus on his mental well-being

Farrell has never had much time for opening up to the media, but stepping away from international rugby for now shows he is struggling

For Farrell, his words were better used on those who win the games. On the showmen, not the show. The rest is waste. All of which meant he hasn’t much cared for engaging in chats to cameras and microphones.

He can seem disinterested. Closed. Inscrutable. Charmless to some. And that’s fine — steel is often cold to the touch and steel runs through Farrell. It has made him great. It made him the captain of England and behind only Dan Carter in the all-time points list of Test rugby. It has also made him a little unknowable.

That steel was there in a snippet I heard about him this week, dating back to 2014, when a reporter from Mail Sport visited Saracens to do a piece with a group of five academy graduates who had lit up the first XV. They were the class of 2008 and, as is the way of these things, there was a desire to echo Manchester United’s Class of 92.

Apparently, that extended to an attempt by the photographer to recreate a famous picture, the one of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, a couple of Nevilles and Terry Cooke, all stood in a line with hands on the shoulders of the prodigy in front.

Except Farrell didn’t fancy the idea. ‘We’re not a boy band,’ was the reasoning and that was that. Aged 23, he was already a man who knew what he was and knew what he wasn’t — he was a man of steel and steel doesn’t bend.

But it can and it has and arguably the greatest shock here is that there is any shock at all. Because this is a recurring story in sport’s long-running mental health crisis.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a hard man, a man who withstood the imprisonment of his father, and he has spoken regularly about the troubles in his mind. Tyson Fury is the hardest boxer on planet earth and he has likewise.

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s recent documentary showed the struggles he has been through

Heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury has also opened up on his mental health battle

England Test captain Ben Stokes took a break from cricket in 2021 to prioritise his mental health

The same goes for Naomi Osaka in tennis, Dele Alli in football and Ben Stokes in cricket. Simone Biles in gymnastics — she’s 4ft 6in and in 2019, at the age of 22, spoke to me about her fears for a body that was so broken she felt she was in her 40s. 

That was before getting to topics of sexual abuse from a team doctor and the issues of being raised by grandparents because her mother was addicted to drugs. She is an incredibly hard woman — that she can fly with the traumas of her past tied to both feet is one of the greatest wonders of all.

They and so many more of the greats have spoken in the past decade about their mental health and in that sense we are in better times. Sport would seem to be more pressurised than ever, the attention and scrutiny that much more intense, the mental health triggers that much more pronounced, but the point is we talk about it now.

We are gradually shifting further away from the thinking that openness is weakness. It isn’t and never was — it is context. And good people appreciate context; idiots on social media might not, but idiots are idiots.

If Elon Musk is granted his death wish for Twitter, or X rather, then maybe that part of the problem will correct itself. For the rest of us, context is understanding.

Context might not be a catch-all but context can help. Context can soften the edges. I’ve written elsewhere on these pages this weekend about Sir Bradley Wiggins — a chunk of it isn’t favourable, but he is a man loaded with context and that context matters. That context shaped him and might even explain him.

Farrell has been treated roughly by some on social media over the years, and it now appears to have taken its toll on him

I find Tyson Fury one of the most objectionable figures in British sport, but it is also useful to know his context.

There is no such smoke around Farrell. The criticisms aimed at him, fevered as some of them have been in recent years, are sporting. About tackles and conversion rates and what he does with ball in hand. About results. 

But if folk knew he was struggling, if they knew his context, would he have been treated so roughly by some England fans at the World Cup? Would there have been more balance on social media and from traditional quarters?

Of course, it falls on each individual to decide if their story is anyone else’s business, but I’m yet to meet an athlete who regretted the sharing of their bigger picture.

Life comes at you fast in the Premier League. It can scarcely have hit Ange Postecoglou faster had it travelled on the back of a rocket.

It is entirely plausible that by the close of play today Tottenham will have experienced the top of the league, a four-match losing run and a crippling injury crisis in the space of a few weeks. Brutal.

Novak Djokovic is unhappy that anti-doping officers turned up for random testing before he played a tennis match.

That would be the random bit, Novak. 

Novak Djokovic complained about anti-doping officers turning up at an inconvenient time, but the tests are supposed to be random!

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