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Owen Farrell leaving for France suits all parties – except Saracens

Fans hold up a sign asking Saracens' Owen Farrell not to leave after the Gallagher Premiership match at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, Leicester. Picture date: Saturday January 6, 2024
Farrell's popularity with Saracens fans appears as strong as ever - PA Wire/Joe Giddens

The news of Owen Farrell taking a period of indefinite leave from international rugby to protect his and his family’s mental health, on the back of horrendous abuse received at the World Cup, was seismic when it broke last November; but Friday’s development, that the England fly-half is in advanced talks with Racing 92 regarding a potential move across the Channel at the end of this season – perhaps turning his back on English rugby for good – eclipsed November’s news on the Richter scale. This is the England captain not just taking a break from international rugby; but looking for an escape.

On the face of it, the departure of Farrell, one of England’s greatest players and Steve Borthwick’s captain, is a terrible look for English rugby. In these pages, chief sports writer Oliver Brown wrote that Farrell’s departure would act as a damning indictment of the system; both in terms of its allure and its culture. Should Farrell depart, those words would be as judicious and truthful as any written before the season’s out. However, the reality of the situation is such that both elements are true: the circumstances surrounding Farrell’s departure means it would challenge the disappearance of three Premiership clubs for the gong of English rugby’s darkest day; but, given those realities, it could be a shrewd move from England’s de facto captain.

This is a move born out of dire circumstances, of course, but it might be the only way of ensuring Farrell’s England future. The vitriol that he and his family received at the World Cup might never abate without a true reset; a circuit-breaker. This plan, a fresh start in France, could be just that. It would allow the narrative surrounding Farrell to die down while he continues playing at a high standard, in the comfort of a team led by his former coach, the man who gave him his England debut, Stuart Lancaster.

In two years’ time, there is a chance that the heat will have died down, and Farrell might be able to return to these shores and scrap for a place in Borthwick’s squad for the 2027 World Cup depending on how the likes of George Ford and Marcus Smith perform in his absence. Given how much the England head coach admires his captain, too, there is no doubt that if Farrell departed for the Parisian environs he would go with Borthwick’s blessing.

The problem, however, is that while a smattering of Farrell’s World Cup boos came from England fans, a large portion came from neutrals or away fans; within which there was a significant collection of French rugby loyalists. While escaping English rugby for good might be the page-turn that Farrell needs, it could be that in order to achieve the intended goal he might have to look even further afield, to Japan or Super Rugby.

Owen Farrell of Saracens looks dejected after their defeat during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Saracens at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on January 06, 2024 in Leicester, England
Farrell was on the losing side as Saracens fell at Welford Road - Getty Images/David Rogers

The losers in all this will be Saracens. Of course, English rugby will be fundamentally worse off but the damage has already been done and the genie is out of the bottle. But at his club, Saracens, he remains idolised and respected by all and sundry, with senior players and the director of rugby continuously at a loss to try and fathom why Farrell has become a lightning rod for such invective and hate. Saracens’ playmaker has led them to countless triumphs and with him at the helm - captain or otherwise - they have conquered both Europe and England on multiple occasions. McCall’s veneration is such that often he is unable to address Farrell publicly by name. He is simply just “the captain”, one who led like a lion once again, even in defeat, at Welford Road on Saturday.

There are certain parallels to be drawn, too, with the only man who is unquestionably above Farrell in the list of England’s greatest fly-halves, Jonny Wilkinson. The World Cup winner has been open and honest regarding the inner torment he experienced from the moment he first burst onto the international rugby scene as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. It was only a move to Toulon, where he helped carve out a European dynasty with a host of other superstars, that Wilkinson truly found himself and came closer to inner peace; playing the rugby of his life.

The difference between Wilkinson and Farrell is that where the former’s inner plight was caused by the pressure he was putting on himself, the latter’s has been caused by external factors beyond Farrell’s control. Wilkinson, too, was more than happy to call time on his England career having won it all when he departed for the Côte d’Azur in 2009; whether Farrell is so keen to turn his back on the England shirt forever, having only a solitary Grand Slam and no World Cups to his name, is the million-dollar question.

Farrell’s departure would be a significant shroud for English rugby, there is no question. Out of darkness, however, light often emerges. For the sake of English rugby, let us hope the brightness does not materialise too late, and that one of the country’s greatest talents is not left by the wayside.

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