Rugby columnist Ollie Phillips writes this week on the news that England Test captain Owen Farrell is walking away from international rugby for the Six Nations to manage his and his family’s well-being.
How serious does abuse to our sporting stars need to get before real, severe and meaningful action is taken against mostly anonymous accounts who spew vile crap from their faceless profiles?
Because the news this week that England captain Owen Farrell will be taking a break from international rugby to focus on his and his family’s mental well-being is simply tragic.
The Saracens No10 is one of the greatest fly-halves playing at the moment, and is one of England’s greatest players.
Farrell will be back
He has played at such an exceptional level for so long that any dip in performance is jumped upon like vultures to a carcass.
Some of the stuff he has had to put up with from people who call themselves fans is abhorrent, but it is reflective of a society we now live in.
I believe in free speech, I do, but these platforms need to properly construct a system whereby abuse can be reported and swiftly removed, and where culprits receive bans.
Many players and sports people, as former referee Wayne Barnes has said since the World Cup, can take the heat that comes with being in the professional game.
Many players know they’re going to get it and that it is part and parcel of being in the industry, however wrong that is. But when the abuse involves partners, children and other loved ones there will of course be a rubber band which eventually snaps.
Societal changes needed
I respect what Farrell is doing. Sport is a demanding place and he’s good enough to walk right back in when he is ready to do so. This is not the end for the No10, unless he decides down the line that it in fact is.
This decision does, however, pose questions for Borthwick. He will now be without his captain for the Six Nations next year while his former vice-captain Courtney Lawes has retired. Fancied choice Lewis Ludlam is expected to head across the Channel to the Top14 and there are questions over whether the second vice-captain, Ellis Genge, will be able to hold on to his shirt.
So how the England boss manages this period without Farrell is now his first major hurdle of the four-year World Cup cycle.
It does offer an opportunity to try new partnerships, both at fly-half and centre, and it offers the chance at trialling potential long-term captains.
You need to go back to 2020 for a Six Nations campaign that saw England win more than two matches, when they won four of their five, and surpassing that lowly number will be on Borthwick’s mind next year.
Throw in a summer tour to New Zealand and some big autumn matches and Borthwick’s first post-World Cup year is suddenly quite the obstacle.
But when all is said and done none of that matters. Rugby, dogged by so many issues, has lost a superb player from the international scene because of so-called fans.
But I’d argue that those who abuse players aren’t fans, they have no right to be called such and they don’t belong in the game. They’re not welcome.
Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips recently swam the English Channel to raise money for Head for Change, a charity aspiring to achieve positive change for brain health in sport. Follow Ollie on Twitter to donate.