Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall has criticised the “shameful” treatment of Owen Farrell in what he believes should be a wake-up call for the game.
Farrell will miss the Six Nations after deciding to take a break from international rugby in order to “prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being”, although he will continue to play club rugby.
The unexpected decision comes after the 32-year-old fly-half led England to a third-place finish in the recent World Cup after losing to champions South Africa by a point in the semi-final.
Farrell has long been a lightning rod figure in the sport but the condemnation peaked in August when he was sent off for a dangerous tackle against Wales, a decision that was overturned by a disciplinary hearing only to then incur a ban on appeal.
England’s captain was frequently booed in France, sometimes with his family present in the stadium, and McCall is impressed that he delivered a series of strong performances despite shouldering a heavy burden.
“It’s remarkable that he played the way he played during the World Cup, if we take into account how he was feeling,” McCall said.
“He is a person who is right on top of his game at the moment, yet he and his family have been made to feel the way they feel. It is shameful. It’s not right.
“I’ve worked with Owen for 15 years, every day, and the person that has been portrayed in the media bears no resemblance to the person I know. He’s a family man, they’ve always come first.
“There was a narrative created and started and that’s been there for quite some time. There’s only so much that someone can take.
“On top of that, he’s a brilliant, caring, supportive team-mate and a loyal friend to many. And a very good, decent human being. That’s the person I know.
“It was courageous and brave of him to open up. I admire Owen for many reasons anyway, but even more for doing this.
“I’m not worried about Europe or the club at all. I’m worried about Owen. We want him to be OK and happy. Clearly he hasn’t been.”
Farrell’s decision to step away from the Test arena comes after referee Wayne Barnes, who oversaw the World Cup final, announced his retirement with a reference to the online abuse he has faced.
Barnes’ family have also been targeted and McCall believes the game should address the attitude towards some of its leading figures.
“Rugby probably needs to do something,” McCall said.
“This is a wake-up call for all concerned because there’s no way that a referee should face what Wayne faced and there’s no way that a player – a person – like Owen should have to face what he faced, over a longer period of time.
“It wasn’t the emotional toll of playing a lot that created this – it was something completely different.
“Down the years he has been made to feel that he has done something much worse than he has done. Every single thing that has been picked up on and scrutinised – that doesn’t happen with other players.
“You might say ‘he’s the England captain’, but I’m not sure that England captains have faced the level of scrutiny that he has.
“Very rarely is it positive and we’re talking about someone who is a model professional, who cares deeply about what he does and who he does it with.”
Farrell has thrown himself into club rugby since his return from the World Cup and McCall revealed that “he said that he was glad he did that”.
But when – and if – England’s leading points scorer and veteran of 112 caps returns is unknown.
“Owen’s happiness and well-being are paramount. If that, in time, involves returning to the international fold then so be it,” McCall said.
“He has nothing to prove. All those caps, being captain, wasn’t enough for some people.
“If he wants to go back after a break and it’s something that he enjoys and loves then good for him. If he doesn’t want to in six, eight months’ time then we’ll support that too.”
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