With the news that England skipper Owen Farrell is taking time out to recharge and recover both his and his family’s mental health from the strain of five years of Test leadership, former captain Chris Robshaw believes that the criticism of players on social media has gone too far.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Planet Rugby, Robshaw slammed the “toxic environment” that has been created and believes it needs to stop.
“When a man like Owen Farrell needs time out for mental health recovery that tells you all you need to know about the toxic environment of elite English sport,” he said.
Man of steel
“Owen is a man of steel, someone I’ve known for 15 years or more and worked with at Test level for eight. For him to take a decision of this nature when in the form of his life shows the depth of pressure that various sectors of the media and of course social media are placing on our sportsmen and leaders and that pressure and vitriol simply has to stop.
“Faz isn’t the media darling. He openly admits his dislike of any form of press conference. At the centre of his being is his northern values of ‘you just do it and you don’t talk about it too much’. He is at his best when he’s in boots, on the pitch, engrossed in the sport he loves and maximising every aspect of his talent. If that doesn’t please the darlings of Fleet Street then there’s little he can do about it because I know he only ever presents his authentic self, much to his credit.
“When you see Ben Stokes, David Beckham and many others all crumbling to the pressure of various aspects of the toxicity on social media and mainstream media then you know there’s a problem in society itself.
“Being an England captain at any sport is something you cherish but to others, it’s all about envy, how they want to knock you down. Anything that doesn’t go to plan or fails to please ends up in you personally bearing the brunt of the blame and Owen gets that more than most.
“I’ve worked with many in the sport, but when it comes down to work ethic and the drive for himself and his team to be better, Farrell sets the standards we all aspire to. There’s not a hint of arrogance and he would never expect anyone to do what he himself is not prepared to do. Sure, by all means, criticise plays or decisions, that’s part of sport. Banter too – it’s a bedrock of rugby, but when people are making character attacks based upon judgment from an armchair then there’s something seriously wrong with the way they’re choosing to follow their sport.”
🚨 England fly-half Owen Farrell will miss the 2024 Six Nations. pic.twitter.com/XKAp3CUjnw
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 29, 2023
The former Harlequin is no stranger to pressure himself on the rugby pitch and has experienced first hand the levels of toxicity that he describes.
“Look, I skippered an England side that got beat up in Wales in the 2013 Grand Slam decider and then failed to get out of the group stage in a home World Cup in 2015. The impact the two results alone had upon me was enough to make me wonder if I wanted to continue in rugby, let alone as England captain, and that’s not even considering the amount of media and social media vitriol I had to put up with,” Robshaw said.
“I well remember going to buy a stamp at my local post office just after the Rugby World Cup loss. ‘You’re that rugby player, aren’t you?’ said the Postmaster, as I queued to pay for my postage. ‘Well let me tell you you’re f*cking sh*t and you let your country down,’ he bellowed at me whilst I did my best not to react and to stay calm.
“What on earth gave him the right to attack me, a total stranger, personally? Did he think I wasn’t hurting enough or that he was the bloke with the life experiences to school me on being an international athlete?
“Did he realise the hours I’d replayed that match day after day in my head on the sofa at home? The helpless despair as I knew I couldn’t right the wrongs of the day? The sleepless nights when I went through every single decision I and the team had made, calling myself out for the tiniest of things as I tried desperately to turn back time? Does he realise the many times when my wife Camilla tried to engage with me but couldn’t penetrate the glazed look in my eyes as yet again I tried mentally to change the unchangeable?
“That is just one example. There were so many more – from so called mickey takes at functions to calls in streets, tweets tagged with my name and so on to the level it becomes an obsession; completely absorbing your mind until the anguish is almost unbearable.
“You turn up at your club following the tournament with huge expectations from your employer to ‘bring your Test experience in’ but the simple truth is you’re still on some far away Test field, replaying the events that have gone before like a scene from Groundhog Day to the point it starts to affect everything. You go through the motions for your club, knowing that you’re good enough to just get by with the minimum, wondering if you’ll ever feel the same about the sport you fell so in love with as a kid and also adding to your own depression because deep down you realise you’re not giving your mates the 100% they deserve.
“You become reclusive, you don’t want to go out because just one more quip or comment is enough to light you up to a point you might react in a way that would be unacceptable. Your wife and kids bear the brunt of it as you don’t want to go out, you are triggered by minor things and so on. But with the proliferation of social media in our lives there’s no escape from it – and the people who sit behind the comfort of their keyboards, judging you, the person they don’t know nor have ever met, from the safety of their cowardly anonymity, are destroying the well being of the people they purport to follow.
“Conor O’Shea used to tell me that once you’ve put your head above the parapet then you’re there to be shot at and it is exactly true. When the 2015 tournament had finished, I had no desire to continue as leader; I just wanted to get back to being a player for my country with the relative anonymity of being just a foot soldier in the ranks, doing my job on the pitch. It’s no coincidence I had the best run of form in my career just after losing the captaincy – I could focus on being Robbo for Robbo and my family, without the intrusion of the public dissection of my leadership and worse, my character.
Message to Farrell
“For the record, I became relaxed, my family became functional and things changed, but it took time and it was maybe three or four years until I felt comfortable talking about those games, even with the lightest of banter on the results.
“My message to Owen, a man I know well and have the utmost respect for, is take your time. Do what is best for you and your family. Don’t change – you have achieved so much for your country, your club, your family and of course yourself.
“History, not social media, will be your ultimate judge as a player and person. That will take time, but believe me, I have learned it actually does happen after a while.”