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Transcript: The Mark McCall 20-minute media briefing on Owen Farrell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Saracens boss Mark McCall provided a fascinating media briefing on Thursday to a virtual audience of 20 journalists on why England captain Owen Farrell has decided to take a sabbatical from international rugby for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations. Here is the transcript from the 20-minute session:

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McCall: I don’t know if it is important when I knew about it or that wider stuff that you talk about. Obviously, I have worked with Owen for 15 years, worked every day with him for the last 15 years, and I don’t know if the person that is being portrayed in the media bears no resemblance to the person that I know. First and foremost he is a family man. His family have always come first and on top of that he is a brilliant, caring, supportive teammate and a loyal friend to many. Just a thoroughly good, decent human being and that’s the person that I know.

Question: Would you hope this is a bit of a wake-up call to people who throw things out there to maybe think twice about it because this is the very clear toll?

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McCall: I would hope so. Probably not just social media to be honest.

Question: What beyond that is problematic?

McCall: It’s not right. A lot of these questions you would have to direct towards Owen in due course. I can’t tell you why he feels the way that he feels but certainly his happiness and his well-being and his family’s well-being is the most important thing of all and any decisions that are taken going forward, he will have the full support of the club like he always has.

Question: Do you think we will see Owen back playing with England?

McCall: Like I said, his happiness and his well-being are paramount and the happiness and well-being of his family are paramount and any decisions that allow that to happen, that’s the most important thing. Whether that involves him playing international rugby or not remains to be seen.

Question: Is there anything extra Saracens need to do to help him?

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McCall: Certainly we need to make sure that we are checking in all the time with him. As Steve (Borthwick) said, it’s incredibly brave and courageous of him to open up in the way that he has. Not just to us at the club and other people in England but really to the world as well, so I admire him for many, many, many reasons anyway but I admire him even more for doing this.

Question: On the match this weekend (against Northampton), have you got any new injury issues this week?

McCall: We are looking forward to the game. Marco Riccioni is going to be out for some time with a neck injury. Eroni Mawi picked up a calf injury at the weekend which looks like it will be a lengthy injury as well. Tom Willis won’t be available this weekend with a knee injury. Actually, Owen himself got a bang on the knee last weekend, so we will determine whether he plays this weekend or we save him for the Bulls next weekend. We will make that decision tomorrow [Friday].

Question: Is this sabbatical a direct result of criticism Owen has received?

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McCall: I guess what I said at the start of this was that the person that is portrayed or has been portrayed from time to time down the years in the media is not the person that I recognise. There was a narrative created and started and that has been there for quite some time and there is probably only so much that someone can take.

Question: Do you think he will come back from this stronger, do you think he has still got a big international future?

McCall: It’s actually quite remarkable that he played the way that he played during the World Cup if we take into account how he was feeling. Amazing, incredible really. So you have got a person who is probably right on top of his game at the moment, probably the best he has ever been playing yet he has been made to feel the way that he feels and his family have been made to feel the way that they feel and it’s shameful really.

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Question: Do you feel he doesn’t get the respect, the credit he deserves?

McCall: I think he does from some and he definitely doesn’t from some.

Question: You have spoken to him obviously. Can you give us an idea of what he shared with you in terms of his emotions?

McCall: No, I am not going to share that with you.

Question: How can you help going forward as a club?

McCall: Like I said earlier, just checking in on him. We are at a stage in our relationship, club and player, that he trusts the people at the club and the very fact that he opened up to us on how he is feeling a while back shows that I think and we will just communicate like we always have.

Question: Is there a part of you that is angry at the moment that this has come to a situation like this?

McCall: Yeah, yeah.

Question: How disappointing at this part of the season that this has created a scenario that is so depressing?

McCall: I’m not worried about Europe at all, I’m not worried about the club at all, to be honest, I’m worried about Owen. We want him to be okay and we want him to be happy and clearly he hasn’t been okay or else he wouldn’t have made this decision so, like I said, I described the person that I know and I don’t know what he has done honestly to deserve how he has been treated.

Question: Do you spend time talking to your younger players about social media and about the impact this can have on them?   

McCall: As a club, of course we are very mindful of that. Not just for the younger players as this shows.

Question: Does Owen’s decision that he feels he needs to take a break and what we saw with Wayne Barnes retiring because of the abuse he has taken, does the game have a growing problem with this kind of criticism and does it need to do something about that?

McCall: It probably does. This is probably a wake-up call for all concerned because there is absolutely no way that a referee should face what Wayne faced and there is no way a player, a person like Owen should face what he has had to face probably over a much longer period than Wayne to be honest.

Question: Are you reassured that Owan wants to play on for Saracens at the moment, is he comfortable to be able to continue to do that?

McCall: Yeah, he obviously came straight back in for the Leicester game after the third/fourth place play-off game in the World Cup. He said he was really glad that he did that. He has a lot of friends, teammates and staff members who he trusts at the club, that’s for sure, so I think he was glad that he came back in the way that he did. Now that he is not going to be playing in February and March (with England) he can make a bit of a plan around what he does in those months when we have got no games, so that is something new for him to get his teeth into which is good as well and as things stand he is really keen to get on with our season.

Question: Do you feel that this break might be good for him in the long run?   

McCall: I don’t know because I don’t think it’s a physical thing with him and I don’t think it was the emotional toll of playing a lot which has created this. Something completely different has created how he has been feeling so we’ll see. We’ll see.

Question: Do you feel the likes of Jamie George and the guys that have been around him for so long will be good for Owen to lean on in this situation?

McCall: Like I said, he has got incredible friends at our club and beyond our club as well and I am sure they will all be there to support him.

Question: What would it mean to you to try and get Owen back to a place where he feels comfortable representing his country again?

McCall: To be honest, it’s hard to think that far ahead. Like I said a little bit earlier, his happiness and his well-being are paramount and if that in time involves him going back to play international rugby so be it. He has got nothing to prove, has he? I don’t know how many caps he ended up on, 108, 110 caps, captain of England, and that wasn’t enough for some people and he was made to feel the way that he has been feeling, so if he wants to after a break go back to international rugby and it is something which he enjoys and loves, then go for it. But if he chooses that he doesn’t miss that in six months, well then we will support that as well.

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Question: How much did you and Steve talk this through, did you try to dissuade him or was it a matter of listening and helping him through the process to get to where he has got to?

McCall: Certainly I didn’t try to persuade him not to change his decision or anything like that and I am pretty sure Steve didn’t either.

Question: Does support within the England camp need to be reviewed or talked about?

McCall: I am probably the wrong person to answer that to be honest not being in camp and not knowing what they had in camp, so I would hate to comment on something like that.

Question: You talk about the narrative created around Owen and all of us on this call work in the media, what do you think needs to change so that this doesn’t happen again?  

McCall: I don’t know. I don’t know. You probably know more than I know. All I’m saying is that social media, we have absolutely zero control over. Zero. But for me, this began in the mainstream media and the narrative that was created around Owen. Not from everybody and not from everybody on this call but that is what happened. Everybody will somewhere in their heads agree with that and then it was a pile-on on social media, but it was created on the mainstream media so maybe some in your industry need to look at themselves.

Question: How would you characterise the abuse that Owen has received? We’re clearly not talking about something as simple as criticism of his rugby.

McCall: Yeah, I think down the years he has probably been made to feel that he has done something much worse than he has actually done at various times if you know what I mean and that every single little thing that I don’t know has been picked up and scrutinised to a level which doesn’t happen with most other players. And you might say, ‘Well, he is the England captain’. I’m still not sure if other England captains in other sports or whatever have faced the level of scrutiny. Very rarely is it positive and we are talking about somebody who I would consider to be a model professional, somebody who cares deeply about what he does, somebody who cares deeply about the people that he does it with and, I don’t know, I think he has been portrayed in a way that doesn’t fit the person that people close to him know and we have ended up where we have ended up.

Question: Would you say that started with rugby things, things like tackle technique and disciplinaries and this kind of thing?

McCall: I’m not sure. Not sure.

Question: I’m just wondering what triggered it at the outset.

McCall: Look, I haven’t thought enough about this call to go back and reflect on when that negativity towards him began, but it probably began before he was ever sent off for anything to be honest so I think there has always been just this unfair narrative I would say and I don’t know why that is.

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