Sir Clive Woodward says sabbaticals in rugby union should be more common and hopes Owen Farrell's decision inspires change; Lawrence Dallaglio calls levels of abuse England captain has received "sickening"; Farrell will continue to play for Saracens during break from international duty
Thursday 30 November 2023 13:31, UK
Sir Clive Woodward hopes Owen Farrell's "brave" decision to step away from England duty to focus on his and his family's mental well-being inspires more players within rugby union to take sabbaticals.
Farrell, England's record points scorer, will miss the 2024 Six Nations with his club, Saracens, announcing the news on Wednesday afternoon.
The 32-year-old has 112 international caps and led his country to the semi-finals of the recent World Cup but his place in the side and tackle technique have come under scrutiny and he was booed during the tournament.
Woodward - who coached England to World Cup glory in 2003 - said the criticism Farrell has received is "unjust" while former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio called it "sickening."
Writing in the Mail Online, Woodward said of Farrell, who will continue to play club rugby: "I hope, with the decision made and the outpouring of support he has received, he can now look ahead with new-found freedom.
"I hope Farrell sets the tone and inspires new thinking in this area. Why is taking a sabbatical not more common?
"No doubt they [the Rugby Football Union] will blame others - especially the media - and create another nameless committee to investigate and put forward their thoughts with zero accountability. Farrell will probably be left to work it out for himself. That is so wrong.
"The RFU and other international sides should look at Farrell's situation with real concern but as an opportunity to better support players.
"The world's best businesses build sabbaticals into their HR processes as paid leave. Why not rugby?
"[Farrell] is going to continue to play for his beloved Saracens and I really hope this is not the last we've seen of him at Test level.
"Here's hoping the break does him the world of good and he can return to the international game when he's good and ready.
I’ve said it many times, Owen Farrell is our captain and potentially England’s greatest ever player. The level of abuse he receives is sickening. I really think it’s time for player sabbaticals such are the demands of the game today.
"The first and most important thing is to acknowledge the brave and correct decision Farrell has made to step away from England duty to protect his and his family's mental health and that we wish them all the best," said Woodward.
"Farrell's move comes as no great surprise considering the extraordinary weight his shoulders have been forced to bear and the unjust criticism he has had to face. Only he will know how much influence this had over his decision.
"Rugby, sport and society have all come a long way in understanding mental health, but there is still so much more that can be done. Athletes and coaches ask a great deal of themselves
"They put themselves into situations that are, while an utter privilege and filled with joy at times, can also leave you wondering how you will get out of bed some days. This is not a burden they carry alone. Their families face the same trials and pressures.
"Farrell is one of England's greatest ever players… But that has not been enough for some.
"For whatever reason, he has never had the praise he's deserved. In fact, he's ended up being criticised a lot - often personally and unjustly. I wonder whether that has had an impact.
"When Farrell was sent off for a dangerous tackle against Wales in the summer and banned for the start of the World Cup, he got things wrong and admitted as much.
"He had nothing to do with how World Rugby and then review committees made a mess of the disciplinary process.
"Farrell was left exposed, as players often are, and the subsequent targeting of him was way over the top and totally uncalled for.
"That was summed up when he was booed at the World Cup. For a player who has given so much, that was unforgivable."
Former England international and World Cup winner Heather Fisher, speaking to Sky Sports News:
"[Farrell] says this decision is for his family and that's when you know it is bigger than just the person.
"There will be people out there who look at this and go, 'I'm struggling and I can take a look at myself, it's okay that I step back'.
"We will have made it when I don't get the phone call late at night asking me to talk about [mental health]. That is the next stage for me.
"We need to be able to openly talk about it in all walks of life. We are not doing that yet. It is still a taboo, still seen as a weakness, because we wear a clown suit.
"It was not until the last season before I retired that I realised we are wearing a clown suit. We are supposed to be big and strong.
"But behind every performer is a human being with a brain and a soul, with an inside. We have to be able to make sure the person is okay.
"The biggest challenge I had personally was telling my team-mates.
"An 18 or 20-year-old, someone fresh into the sport and ready to take on the world, doesn't understand mental health in that capacity of performing day in, day out.
"You've got someone like Farrell who has been to two World Cups, playing for 10 years. He has been on it and it takes a lot. He will be tired. He will come back from his break stronger and refreshed."