Search icon


09th Sep 2020

Owen Farrell disciplinary process is as messed up as his tackle

Patrick McCarry

“The player is free to play again on October 5”

Owen Farrell went out to make a big hit, got his technique all wrong and wasted an 18-year-old scrum-half who has now been stood down from training and matches for the next two weeks. As soon as he connected with Charlie Atkinson, he knew he had messed up.

Farrell has been making statement-hits in defence his entire career. Son of Ireland head coach and rugby league legend Andy Farrell, the stand and deliver type of tackles Owen Farrell makes are often as good as a score for his team.

Tough but fair. Tough but within the rules. That is the aim.

Back in April 2016, he crayoned way outside the lines when he ended Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson with a brutal shoulder to the head.

Farrell received a yellow card for this – we are talking 2016 here, not 1986 – but the citing officer thought, ‘Hang about here’, and the Saracens out-half had to answer for himself.

World Rugby has since cracked down further on hits above the shoulder line but it seems crazy, at this remove of four years, to think that Farrell was only banned for two weeks after splaying Robson out. In the sort of disciplinary faff that we will circle back to later, Farrell had his two-week ban for the ‘low-end’ tackle increased to three then reduced back to two weeks in the same hearing. The reason? His previously clean record.

That meant Farrell missed two Premiership games but was free to play a Champions Cup final against Racing 92, which Sarries lost 23-6. He was also cleared to represent England in the 8 Nations.

In his 197 games for Saracens, Farrell has been yellow-carded on six occasions. He was sent to the sin-bin twice during his Test career with England. In November 2018, he courted debate with two no-arm tackles – on Izack Rodda (Australia) and Pieter Steph Du Toit (South Africa) – but neither were penalised in-play.

Last Saturday, at the Ricoh Arena, Farrell’s on-the-line tackling style was off-pitch, Atkinson was levelled and he saw red. That a Wasps scrum-half was on the receiving end was an unfortunate coincidence:

As the media stewed over the incident – before Tuesday evening’s online disciplinary hearing – there was a division between those calling for an example-setting ban and others than trotted out the line that Farrell is a nice guy. That it was just a case of poor timing.

Just about everyone was in agreement that a ban was coming. Only the number of weeks were debated. There would be no ‘low-end’ entry on this occasion. It would either be mid or high [between six and 10 weeks].

That disciplinary process dragged on late into Tuesday night and the decision – that Farrell would be banned for five “meaningful” games – came around 11pm.

Anyone that has been following rugby in recent decades will know how the disciplinary process now works. To get your ban reduced, as a player, here is a checklist you need to tick off:

  • Express remorse
  • You must have apologised to your opponent/victim or at least attempted to do so [social media – public or private messaging – counts]
  • Show up to the process in person [easier to do now that they are online]
  • Be well presented/dressed for your hearing [no hoodies or casual-wear]
  • Be well behaved and respectful during the process
  • Have a couple of character witness statements

With the news of Farrell’s five-game ban emerging, we also learned that the disciplinary panel had deemed the hit on Atkinson to be ‘high-end’ and deserving of a 10-game ban. It would be 10 weeks, under normal circumstances, but a fixture pile-up and mid-week games saw ‘weeks’ substituted for ‘games’, albeit meaningful ones [no turning out in the Anglo-Welsh Cup or a Second XV hit-out].

Then followed the reasoning and the matter-of-fact manner of the head coach of England coming forward as a character reference for a player that was in danger of being banned for England’s upcoming Six and Eight Nations matches. Independent disciplinary panel chair Mike Hamlin said:

“Testimonials provided by Mark McCall, Eddie Jones and the founders of a charity with which the player works very closely were of the highest quality. The Panel concluded that applying the off-field mitigating factors, notwithstanding his suspension four-and-a-half years ago, the player was entitled to a reduction from 10 matches to five meaningful matches.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall coming out on behalf of his player is fine. That is to be expected. Eddie Jones pitching in with a character reference has conflict of interest written all over it.

In reducing the 10-game ban to five, Farrell can now get back for a Champions Cup final [if Saracens get that far], a warm-up England game against Barbarians, finish out the 2020 Guinness Six Nations by facing Italy and then face Georgia and Ireland in the Eight Nations. Jones will argue that he was giving a true representation on the character of his captain, but that reference has gone a long way to directly benefitting his team.

As for the charity work, Farrell has done sterling work with Just Jack and raises their profile each time he gets points on the board with a celebration gesture meant for them. That is noble, worthwhile and deserves to be recognised, just not in a hearing about his actions on the field of play.

However, why should someone doing charity work have any sort of bearing on what sort of ban he gets for driving his shoulder into the head of an opponent and concussing him? It sets a dangerous precedent where any player now facing a ban can reach out for high-profile figures to give them a good reference, and to do some charity work on the side.

The warped and arbitrary disciplinary process has been thus for decades now and these sort of big bans getting reduced to piffles are depressingly commonplace. An England international has benefitted this time but the whole process would be just as skewed if we were discussing an Ireland, New Zealand or [insert any other nation here] player.

Perhaps it is time to bring this whole process into the open and allow access to a procedure that does not do justice to the players, or the ones making the laws.