Owen Farrell’s decision to walk away from rugby red-flags social media abuse suffered by players

Owen Farrell’s decision to walk away from rugby red-flags social media abuse suffered by players
England captain Owen Farrell has decided to step away from Test rugby indefinitely to protect the mental health of his family and himself. (Photo: Patrick Khachfe / Getty Images)

The England rugby captain is regarded as one of the toughest men in the sport – physically and mentally – but online abuse has taken its toll.

For a player of the stature of Owen Farrell – a heart-on-his-sleeve leader with a voracious competitive spirit and drive – to walk away from international rugby for the sake of his mental well-being is a sobering moment for the sport.

Mental health issues are always deeply personal and the reasons for them are unique to every person. But there is little doubt that the vitriol and abuse Farrell has suffered, predominantly through social media platforms such as X, has taken its toll on the 112-cap veteran.

Farrell (32) announced an indefinite break from the Test arena this week, although at this stage he intends to continue playing club rugby at Saracens, where he is contracted.

He said he was stepping back from playing for England to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.

That suggests that it’s not only Farrell who is under strain from the pressure and abuse dished out, but also those closest to him.

Farrell has received the support of England head coach Steve Borthwick.

“Everyone at England Rugby is fully behind Owen’s decision,” Borthwick said. “Since making his debut, he has been an integral part of the England set-up for over a decade and the demands on elite athletes are extremely challenging. He is an exemplary player, captain and leader and always gives his all for his country.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby and a new era of mental health vulnerability

“It is with typical courage that Owen has made this decision to open up in this manner. Together with all of us at England Rugby, I will do everything I can to ensure that he has the support he requires going forward,” Borthwick said.

Legitimate criticism versus abuse

Farrell has had his fair share of run-ins with rugby laws, especially about his tackle technique, which has led to several bans and some understandable and deserved criticism.

That disapproval from serious commentators on the sport is generally not personal or unfair, as it centres on the actions  of the player, the outcome of those actions, and their consequences.

Measured criticism is part of the game and an occupational hazard of being a professional sportsperson. It doesn’t, however, excuse the type of vitriol he has suffered at the hands of social media trolls.

The impact of hundreds, if not thousands, of personal attacks cannot be measured, but they must wear a person down.

And it’s not only rival “fans” who have hounded Farrell on social media or in the stands; it is England fans too.

Earlier this year, at Rugby World Cup 2023, English fans booed Farrell when he was shown on the big screen during England’s RWC opener against Argentina. Farrell was not playing as he was completing a four-match ban for an illegal tackle on Wales flank Taine Basham. It was astonishing to hear so much anger directed at England’s best player over the past decade – and one of their best to date.

Around the time of the Basham incident, which wasn’t helped by the ham-fisted way a disciplinary panel dealt with the situation, forcing World Rugby to appeal the initial lenient decision, Farrell was abused mercilessly on social media.

It led to his father Andy, who is Ireland’s head coach, angrily calling the situation a “circus”.

“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, like, you know?” Farrell senior said at the time.

“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,” he said.

Policing abuse

Farrell is a divisive figure in the game for sure.

He is uncompromising, tough, and often comes across as rude when dealing with officials on the field, but he is also eloquent and considered off it.

He isn’t the first player to suffer abuse on social media, but he might be the one who’s copped the most.

When people make threats against your wife and kids, they should be held to account and punished.

Social media is hardly the place for nuanced debate. Some people believe that players are well paid and therefore somehow fair game for personal attacks over mistakes on a rugby field.

Referee Wayne Barnes was the victim of so many personal attacks during his career (not helped by criticism from coaches such as Rassie Erasmus), as were others such as former Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper, that he took time out for mental health reasons.

Barnes, who handled the RWC 2023 final between the Springboks and the All Blacks, suffered severe abuse from some Kiwi fans after New Zealand lost 12-11.

He retired after the match (it had been decided beforehand) but he had some parting words for rugby authorities.

“When people make threats against your wife and kids, they should be held to account and punished,” Barnes told the BBC.

“Threats of sexual violence, threats of saying we know where you live. It crosses that line. Social media is getting worse and it’s the sad thing about the sport at the moment. It has not been a one-off.

“I’m on social media for numerous reasons. One is to promote the charitable work I do and to also promote officiating and to explain what a difficult job it is and to humanise it,” he said.

“I make that choice, and with that choice comes the ability for people to send messages of hate and violence.”

Bok scrumhalf Cobus Reinach was the victim of abuse and threats after his performance helped South Africa to beat France in the quarterfinals of the tournament.

He was selected for the semifinal against England and, despite downplaying how the abuse affected him and his family, was it coincidence that he gave a mediocre performance and missed the final as a consequence?

Before RWC 2023, World Rugby partnered with the Signify Group, a data science and artificial intelligence company, to track online abusers with a view to prosecuting them where necessary.

The official report from that collaboration is still pending, but The Telegraph reported that 200 incidents, across seven countries, were flagged for further investigation.

This wasn’t done to deter debate, or stop legitimate criticism, but World Rugby will seek to punish abusers who make threats and “cross a line”.

Farrell has chosen to prioritise his mental state in the coming months, which is a courageous decision for a man who loves nothing more than representing his country at the highest level.

Farrell might never add to his Test cap tally because of an illness that is creeping into the game and threatening to undermine a sport already grappling with many issues.

That would be a real shame. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Page 1. Front page DM168. 02 December 2023


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Con Tester says:

    Defending Owen Thuggell is a duplicitous thuggery all of its own.

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Hmmm? Con. An apropos name. He’s a great, hard-nosed rugby player. If he transgresses, let the refs make the decision & punish him. It’s not for cowardly muppets to add their disgraceful bile & vile threats. For the record, I really don’t care for the Poms & always rejoice when they’re beaten. By anyone.

  • chrisarab51 says:

    I think you missed the point of the article

  • David Mitchley says:

    The world was a better place before the advent of social media.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      Best advice is ‘do not use social media’. Although it has undoubted benefits, the pendulum has swung so far on the negative side of aspects of social media that it is no wonder that governing bodies, even Governments, are beginning to question how social media can be controlled

    • Gavin Hillyard says:

      @David Mitchley. 100% David. Social media should be avoided like the plague it is. It has the power to do good but has become a tool for cretins for abuse. People also often dash off a post in anger, when holding it back and re-reading it 24 hours later would often result in it not being posted. Grammar is also often appallingly bad. Once something is posted it is out there and cannot be retracted before harm is done. As a baby boomer I think it is unbelievable and pathetic how the youth of today is obsessed with social media, cellphones etc. I my opinion they should get a life and find true north. Einstein said something along these lines decades ago and he was right.

      • David Mitchley says:

        Absolutely agree with you, this pre-occupation with an electronic device is madness.
        I didn’t particularly like OF as a player, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when he missed the penalty that would’ve won the game for England, but that wouldn’t give me the right to abuse him on social media if I was on social media to start with.

  • Llewellyn Henman says:

    No comment

  • Sean Hammon says:

    Really? Farrell as the poster boy for unfair abuse? It swings both ways: social media would be elevating him to rugby deity status had Farrell not always been a filthy, mouthy, arrogant and dangerous player who flouted rules put in place for player’s safety, and then got treated with velvet gloves. Farrell, personally, brought the integrity of rugby into dispute and spoiled many games I watched. We can consider ourselves lucky Farrell didn’t permanently cripple anybody. Farrell earned every minute of the social media abuse he’s suffered, and should live in shame. GOOD RIDDANCE.

    • Francois Smith says:

      I didn’t know Farrell could read. That said, if social media got to him, maybe he should have not read it?

      • Penny Philip says:

        He can choose whether to read social media or not, but not reading it doesn’t stop your family, team mates & friends reading it &/or being targeted by trolls.

    • Wade de Jager de Jager says:

      @Sean Hammon – it appears you may just be one of those internet trolls that Craig Ray is referring to. Unable to distinguish between fair and objective criticism of a player’s actions on the field of play versus criminal and reckless threats of violence and intimidation against him, his wife and children! Since when was it cool or acceptable to threaten to villate someone’s daughter or wife because he did something against the rules on the field of player.

  • Giles Russell says:

    With the exception of one, the commenters on this post have displayed their ignornace and totally missed the point of Craig Ray’s thoughtful article. Put your prejudices aside for once and reread the article. You are showing yourselves up to be no better than the internet trolls who so horribly abuse players and their families. One last thing, have you all conveniently forgotten Butch James?

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    OF has been wrapped in cotton wool for most of his career. He will now have time to reflect on his attitude and why seemingly a lot of people dislike him and actively express this on social media.

  • Sydney Carstens says:

    OF has been displaying abusive behaviour towards referees/linesmen and opposition players whenever he got the opportunity and it is probably part and parcel of his personality, but it will lead to him copping flack from many people. Social media is just an easy platform for OF non supporters to say what they think of him displaying such behaviour. Obviously there are people that will always cross the line with threats etc., and they are wrong. In the end world rugby will not lose a legendary player, just another foul mouthed, abusive sportsman.

  • Brian Kritzinger says:

    Social media has given a voice to countless people who would otherwise and lived and died in obscurity and irrelevance. It unfortunately brings out the worst instincts in many of these people who then project their inadequacies and impotence on the world around them.

    Its a shame when contributing and relevant members of society (whether you like Owen Farrell or not) fall victim to what is just pure small-minded envy.

    • Penelope Meyer says:

      Absolutely agree. Free speech is noble and should be protected, but does not mean you have the right to threaten and harass people. I don’t care how much you dislike Owen Farrell, you can maintain a standard of civility in expressing yourself. And restrict yourself to his behaviour and not threaten his family, as is being done here.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Good article Craig. Every game has its special characters, and OF is definitely one of them. Social media has provided an instrument for people to express their opinions and frustrations with anonymity and with little fear of having to defend what they say, or suffer any consequence when they cause harm. I find it completely unacceptable to attack a person or his family personally on social media. My Dad used to say that for people to behave sensibly, we need to have a bloody good war now and again-it focuses one’s priorities. Maybe our ‘war’ will be controlled social media like China has.

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    Nobody deserves despicable social media abuse and threats – not even Owen Farrell. However being aware of the negative side of social media, as surely he is, he should not have opened himself up to the abuse by his dangerous disregard for the rules of rugby, being rude to match officials, and acting like a petulant schoolgirl when he disagrees with a ruling. His refusal to give Faf de Klerk the ball in the RWC final gifted SA with a penalty, and he was lucky that his tripping of Damian de Allende in the 34th minute of the game was not spotted. Had it been picked up, it would surely have resulted in a yellow card. One could not imagine that Gerald Ford would behave as he did. It is such a pity as Owen is a brilliant goal and touch kicker and a gifted player. One hopes he comes back a reformed player after some serious introspection.

  • Carlo Fourie says:

    Obviously we’re taking about the same social media that elevates and celebrate Siya Kolisi who is a humble servant of the game. It seems social media amplifies a player’s character and how he conducts himself. I would suggest to Mr Darrell to have a long, hard lol in the mirror.

  • cathyjvr says:

    It’s a total shame. (A cellphone etc in your hand does not mean your opinion is necessary, fair or intelligent.) Maybe keep it to yourself? Go well Owen.

  • Penny Philip says:

    Owen Farrell is a bloody good player, even if he is at times guilty of bad tackles (which wouldn’t make him the first player in rugby guilty of this). England’s fans & media are ridiculously brutal as can be seen in football , cricket (the last Ashes) & now rugby. Constructive criticism is fine, but most trolls are big mouths behind the safety of a computer. Face-to-face they are little mice.

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