Rugby needs to reassess its stance as social media’s molten rage takes a toll

The decision of both Owen Farrell and referee Tom Foley to step away from the international game, in part due to online abuse, has set a worrying precedent

And so it goes on. First the England captain, Owen Farrell, stepped aside from international rugby and now the referee Tom Foley, the television match official in the World Cup final, has followed suit.

Both have cited abuse and criticism online as a factor in their decisions, both have expressed their desire to reduce the pressure and scrutiny on themselves and their families.

All the high-profile rugby occasions in the world clearly count for nothing in comparison with the wellbeing and mental health of the individuals concerned and those closest to them. Hopefully both of them will be seen back on an international field sooner rather than later.

It would also be lovely to think this week marks a significant turning point. That the molten rage of social media starts to cool fractionally and that, before booing match officials or high-profile faces on big screens, people pause to reflect on the human being within every household name.


It is not just English rugby that needs to stop and reflect on where the sport is heading. Something needs to change before the situation starts snowballing out of control.

Farrell’s World Cup team-mate Kyle Sinckler has already told BBC Sport he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more international players sought to take a break and suggested “it’s only the beginning”.

In Sinckler’s eyes, there is a growing need to help players navigate the modern realities of their profession.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the fans,” suggested Sinckler, wondering aloud if enough is being done within the team environment to ease the pressure.

“I just think the support for the players, if I am being blunt and brutally honest, could be a lot better.”

It is an increasingly important discussion, with society’s bonds ever more stretched and the internet vitriol growing ever louder. If there is a big difference between someone critiquing your scrummaging or decisions in the morning paper and receiving abuse and death threats from faceless accounts worldwide, there are clearly issues for media companies as well.

If few online users care about the wider implications of what they say or write, a coarser public discourse will inevitably follow.

Not only does the internet need more vigilant policing but attitudes need revisiting. Respect and courtesy are increasingly in danger of being seen as old-fashioned constructs rather than the grease that keep the wheels of society turning.

Which brings us back, among other things, to sports writing. The relationship between players, coaches, match officials and journalists, the preservation of fair, balanced reporting and, ultimately, the shaping of public perceptions.

Listening to the Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall specifically blaming elements of “the mainstream media” for sparking the pile-on that has now caused Farrell to take a step backwards, it is depressingly clear that mistrust is rife.

This cuts to the heart of the professional critic and pro athlete dynamic. Some of us have always started out from the point of view that rugby players, more than most, deserve respect simply for taking the field. The physical and mental demands at the top level are massive.

Coaches do a difficult job, referees a near impossible one. Good and bad days can happen to anyone. Reviews, as in the theatre, should be as honest and accurate as possible without straying into the personal or gratuitous.

At the same time, the media whirl spins ever faster. Nuance is harder, headlines are punchier, clicks need to be aggregated. Measured columns in the paper are less grabby than 15 seconds of an ashen-faced coach in the immediate aftermath of a big defeat.

Newcastle’s director of rugby Alex Codling was a perfect case study at the weekend; the price of your league accepting a fat television contract is to have a microphone shoved in front of your nose in your darkest hour.

So what next? To some the answer will be obvious. Fewer interviews, less intrusion, banish the ghastly hacks. Wrong. If anything, rugby needs to do the opposite and talk more openly more often. And here’s why.

If Farrell and Foley had felt better able to air their concerns six months ago and develop more open channels of communication with their employers, the media and, by extension, the public, maybe things would not have unravelled as far as they have.

Hopefully, amid the fallout, there will be a reassessment of the whole manner in which individuals, clubs and unions deal with the media. The more access and openness, the better. Ditch the in-house puff content and the give-em-nothing policies and think afresh.

Mic up the captains – Cardiff’s Ellis Jenkins was excellent to listen to the other day – and referees as a matter of routine and make every member of every squad available for interview, on request, for an hour every week.

Suddenly there will authenticity and insight where, for too long, there has been disdain and suspicion. Instead of pointing fingers at the ‘mainstream media’, invite the rugby correspondents in for a coffee and discuss how things can, collectively, be enhanced.

Rugby, in particular, needs to find more ways to project its human side. The camaraderie and humour, the hopes and fears, the skill and the fine judgements. Because if the public only sees a fraction of the real story, flawed perceptions and finger-pointing become harder to avoid.

Nor is shooting the messenger the way ahead. Better pastoral care aside, the best way to ease the pressure on Farrell, Foley and others is to inform and educate. Or, failing that, to unplug the internet. — Guardian