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 is a hard man. It always was and still is, but it can be hard to really know a hard man.
I don't know Farrell, not personally, and we've never spoken properly. But I know he's difficult, because we can all see that he's difficult.
Maybe it's his look. It's the look of a hard man. Or maybe it's the layering of the muscles and what we say about the way he tackles: the hard punches of the tough son of a tough rugby man. A tough son who often seems indifferent to what we think.
But here we are talking about hard men. Toughness can shape stories. Hardness darkens. Hardness deflects. Light does not penetrate hard objects, so we cannot see what is inside them. And we rarely saw what was inside Farrell – he's not the kind to offer tours of his soul and we all took the hardness of his shell for granted.
A colleague had an interesting thought when we chatted on Friday, following the biggest sporting story of the week, when we heard that Farrell would be taking an indefinite break from international rugby to rebuild his mental health. The line he used is that Farrell is the captain of a player, not the captain of the media, the point being that this was a man who doesn't quite see the value in letting you in.
Owen Farrell has always been a tough man but has now opted not to play in the 2024 Six Nations to focus on his mental wellbeing
Farrell has never had much time to open up to the media, but stepping away from international rugby for the time being shows he is struggling
For Farrell, his words could be better used against those who win the games. On the showmen, not on the show. The rest is waste. All this meant he wasn't much into chatting with cameras and microphones.
He may seem disinterested. Closed. Inscrutable. Charmless to some. And that's fine: steel often feels cold and steel runs through Farrell. It made him great. It made him captain of England and behind only Dan Carter on Test rugby's all-time points list. It has also made him a bit unknowable.
That sample was in a clip I heard about him this week, dating back to 2014, when a Mail Sport reporter visited Saracens to do a piece with a group of five academy graduates who had lit the first XV. They were the Class of 2008 and, as is the nature of these things, there was a desire to reflect Manchester United's Class of 92.
Apparently that extended to the photographer's attempt to recreate a famous photo, that of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, a few Nevilles and Terry Cooke, all lining up with the hands on the shoulders of the child prodigy in front.
Only Farrell didn't feel like it. “We're not a boy band,” was the reasoning and that was that. At 23, he was already a man who knew what he was and knew what he was not; he was a man of steel and steel does not bend.
But it can happen and it has happened, and perhaps the biggest shock here is that there is a shock at all. Because this is a recurring story in sports' long-standing mental health crisis.
Ronnie O'Sullivan is a hard man, a man who endured his father's imprisonment, and he has spoken regularly about the problems in his mind. Tyson Fury is the hardest boxer in the world and he has that.
Ronnie O'Sullivan's recent documentary showed the struggles he went through
Heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury has also opened up about his mental health battle
England Test captain Ben Stokes took a break from cricket in 2021 to prioritize 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 is 4 feet tall and in 2019, at the age of 22, she spoke to me about her fears of a body so broken she felt like she was in her 40s.
That was before I was introduced to topics of sexual abuse by a team doctor and the issues of parenting by grandparents because her mother was addicted to drugs. She is an incredibly tough woman – that she can fly with the traumas of her past tied to both feet is one of the greatest miracles of all.
They and so many other greats have spoken about their mental health over the past decade and in that sense we are in better times. It seems like the sport is under more pressure than ever, the attention and scrutiny much more intense and mental health much more apparent, but the point is that we are talking about it now.
We are gradually moving away from the idea that openness is weakness. It isn't and never has been: it's context. And good people value context; idiots on social media may not be, but idiots are idiots.
If Elon Musk gets his death wish for Twitter, or rather X, maybe that part of the problem will correct itself. For the rest of us, context is understanding.
Context may not be all-encompassing, but context can help. Context can soften the edges. I wrote about Sir Bradley Wiggins elsewhere in these pages this weekend – some of it is not favorable, but he is a man packed with context and that context matters. That context has shaped and perhaps even explained 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 think Tyson Fury is one of the most despicable figures in British sport, but it's also useful to know his context.
There is no such smoke around Farrell. The criticism of him, feverish as some have been in recent years, is sporting. About tackles and conversion rates and what he does with the ball in hand. About results.
But if people 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 angles?
Of course, it's up to each individual to decide if their story is someone else's business, but I have yet to meet an athlete who regretted sharing his bigger picture.
This is where clubs, organizations and agents come into play. Many of them build walls around their talent and grow higher and higher. Content is plentiful and context is suffocated, squeezed under the boot of commercial interests and exacerbating an aloofness that risks reducing players to two-dimensional figures.
Would it reduce some of the aggression around football and the conversations about it if they were given a little more freedom to talk about who they are? Would it really hurt if we all had more freedom to hear them? It may well further the empathetic needs of the sport.
I would like to extend an identical argument to the refereeing crisis in football. Who's the w***** in black? No idea, buddy, but if we hear from them we might realize the obvious: he's just a normal guy trying his best. Most people in sports are.
Forget the thought: that added context might actually be useful. Just as it is hoped that withdrawing from the coal sector will benefit Farrell, a tough and courageous man.
It's a shame it all came to this for him. But it's progress that he felt like he had more options than grinding it out in silence while staring at those high walls.
Life comes at you fast in the Premier League. It could hardly have hit Ange Postecoglou faster if it had been traveling on the back of a rocket.
It is entirely plausible that by the end of today's match, Tottenham will have experienced the top of the league, a four-match losing streak and a crippling injury crisis in the space of a few weeks. Cheeky.
Novak Djokovic is unhappy that anti-doping agents showed up for random testing before he played a tennis match.
That would be the random bit, Novak.
Novak Djokovic complained about anti-doping agents showing up at an inopportune time, but the tests are supposed to be random!