Ben Youngs is the first player Owen sees when he arrives at the season launch, after being introduced to what feels like 50 members of media personnel.
“Faz!” Ben greets, as enthusiastic as ever, coming over for a hug.
“Alright Lenny?” Owen asks, shaking hands with Matt O’Connor and the Leicester PR guy when Ben releases him. “How’s it going?” he asks them all.
Ben regales him with an account of just how brilliantly preseason is going - stories that don’t quite match the gentle caution George is talking with, not that Owen will tell Ben that. He’s barely finished when Harlequins turn up, Danny Care managing to exceed Ben’s own levels of enthusiasm in seeing them - understandably, Owen supposes, given that he’s been out of England camps, hasn’t seen them in months.
It’s a flurry of small talk from there on, the rest of the lads arriving within minutes. Owen’s never shaken so many hands in such quick succession, thinks he only misses George Smith, immersed in conversation with Ben Te’o when Owen greets his head coach. Nearly everyone has a word for his coming out, Toby Flood starting the barrage with a sincere remark on the magnitude of what he’s doing. After that Owen wonders if the others don’t feel they have to say something, have to make their stance clear - Ben and Danny, the two Owen would call friends, hadn’t felt the need.
Owen would rather everyone didn’t bring it up, but doesn’t care enough to make a fuss about it - he supposes it’s something he’ll have to get used to, after all. And there are much worse consequences he could be facing, he reminds himself. A brief line from everyone, an expression of support - if he thinks about it like that, moves on to the intent rather than the awkwardness of the delivery, Owen can appreciate it. If someone had told him as a teenager that he’d be complaining about how many people wanted to speak positively about queer guys in rugby, well - Owen sincerely doubts he’d’ve believed them.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t wearing, but Owen finds the regular small talk at these events tiring in any case. It just makes him especially glad he had asked Saracens’ PR to ban questions about his sexuality, told them to feel free to stamp down on any interviewers pushing their luck. It’s Alice with him today and Owen will readily admit she’s his favourite, has absolute faith in her capability to shut down any interviewers should it become necessary. It’s not long now until they’ll discover if it is necessary, or if the rugby media can restrain themselves. Owen isn’t holding out much hope.
But first they have to get through the photos, trudging out pitchside. Owen takes a moment to appreciate being back at Twickenham, months after winning the Premiership title here.
“Always nice to be back,” Toby Flood says at his side.
“Yeah,” Owen grins at him. “Yeah, it is.”
Then Alice approaches him with the Premiership cup and it’s all Owen can do to contain himself to a smile, resist the urge to hoist it over his head. Last time he’d touched the cup he’s pretty sure it had been full of beer but it looks none the worse for it. Owen wonders if it’s coated with something, anticipating the misuse.
“Yeah yeah, reigning champions,” it’s Ben’s voice that cuts through Owen’s reminiscing. “We know, no need to look so smug.”
“For the third time in four years, that’s right,” Mark pipes up. “Nice to see the cup back in safe hands.”
“Wouldn’t be too confident it’ll stay there,” Jack Nowell pipes up.
The photos take an interminably long time, the 12 club representatives arranging themselves in every possible permutation, but at least with rugby players the banter never stops. It may get repetitive, it may get tired, but Owen thinks it’s still better than standing there in silence. Owen finally finds himself next to George Smith, turns to him with a smile after missing him earlier on. Smith had come into England camp when they’d won the Grand Slam in 2016, and despite not spending much time with him Owen had thought him an interesting bloke. Smith is clearly enjoying himself about as much as Owen though, barely responds with a nod. Owen can respect that.
Bare minutes later George Smith is back next to Ben Te’o again, back to laughing.
Owen bites his lip, shakes himself - he’s sure it’s nothing. He bets he’s easier, smiles more, in Ben and Danny’s company.
Finally it’s over, the Cup passed through everyone’s hands, and the players get to take a step back and harass their coaches while they get away with just one version of their own photo.
“Lucky sods,” Danny mutters, Owen nodding agreement.
Owen takes a breath of fresh air as they’re chivvied back inside, mentally preparing himself for the media onslaught to come. The coaches walk off to their own meetings, players dragging their heels behind their handlers. Owen summons up a smile for Alice, determined not to make her job any harder than he already has.
One photoshoot and one interview later Owen is already glad he lingered for that last moment in the Twickenham sunshine, bringing the memory up as he’s marched from room to room, smiling and shaking hands with too many people to count. It’s always nice to see the old players, at least, but now Owen finds they’re the ones to push their luck on the questions.
David Flatman is the first, asking cheekily if Owen is as successful with the lads as he is at kicking. Owen laughs, deflects, and shakes his head at Alice to let that one pass. The next attempt, pushing Owen about the importance of rugby culture -
“- and trust,” Flats goes on. “Knowing you can talk to the lads about anything, not needing to keep secrets -”
Alice cuts in there, and Owen lets her.
Flats takes it well, rephrases the question to something less leading with no bother - and Owen can’t blame him for asking, really. He’s sure every media platform wants to be the first to get him talking about his experiences, and that every pundit has a healthy chunk of their own curiosity besides.
Austin Healey takes it less well, when he and Ugo Monye are up.
“Oh, come on,” he appeals, directly to Owen. “You put it out there, it’s our job to ask.”
Owen looks away, glad to see sympathy on Ugo Monye’s face - at least he’s safe on that front.
“It’s my job to tell you no,” Alice insists, stepping forwards so Austin is forced to acknowledge her. “Now we can stop this interview right here or we can stay focused on rugby - which would you like to choose?”
“Yeah, let’s try another question -” Ugo moves the conversation on.
Austin is still clearly disgruntled as Alice moves back to her position out of shot. Owen makes eye contact with Austin, because he’ll have to at some point, shrugs sheepishly at Austin’s raised eyebrow. They’re curious, he’s sure, he understands - but this is his life, his private life. If he wants to talk about something he’ll bring it up, but he won’t be pushed.
When they move onto the next room, the next interviewer, Owen takes a moment to thank Alice.
“It’s my job,” she shrugs at him. “I quite like putting interviewers in their place, anyway,” she smirks, opening the door to the next room.
Owen barks out a laugh, shaking his head. “In that case, you’re welcome!”
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Owen. I’m Maria,” the lead of the next room says, stepping forward to shake his hand. “You must be Alice?” she adds, turning to shake Alice’s hand in turn.
Owen smiles, desperately trying to place this woman.
“We’re just doing a photoshoot today, a few pictures of you holding boots with the Rainbow Laces -”
Of course! How did Owen not guess? He’s never met Maria but they’ve exchanged a few emails since his coming out, discussing tactics Stonewall could use to increase rugby’s involvement in the Rainbow Laces campaign.
“This is Sam,” Maria gestures at the photographer.
Sam waves, and Owen notes the rainbow braces, a ‘they/them’ pronoun badge pinned to one of them.
Yeah, this is Stonewall alright.
“Nice to meet you,” Owen steps forward for a handshake. “Shall I - do you want me to lace up and put them on, or?”
“Not quite,” Sam tells him. “Here,” they hand over a set of rainbow laces. “You lace up and we’ll do some pictures of you holding your boots - we want to be able to see your face, use your image to promote the campaign.”
“Right,” Owen nods, a little taken aback. He guesses that makes sense.
Sam winces, clearly picking up on that. “I mean - if that’s okay with you,” they say hurriedly. “We’re doing it with all the player representatives, images to send out for their clubs to use when the campaign comes around.”
“Although I think it’s pointless to pretend it won’t be your image Stonewall uses the most,” Maria says.
No pretence - Owen appreciates that, starting to thread the new laces through his boots. He doesn’t know why he was surprised - he’d been wanting to ask about doing something for the campaign anyway, it’s not like it’s a new idea that he could be of use to them.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Alice says, moving to sit against a wall.
Owen is glad she’s relaxed about this. For some reason he’s twice as nervous as he had been at the interviews - and those had required something of him. All he has to do here is stand and smile.
“Right,” Owen walks to where the lights are set up, boots in hand. “So I just -”
“Hold them up, that’s right,” Maria comes over to fuss at the positioning. “Make sure we can see the laces, and smile.”
Owen tries to oblige, feeling immediately that he’s just as stiff as every shoot attempt of the day. This is important, he scolds himself. He doesn’t want to give Stonewall the same repressed, forced grin as everyone else. This is something he wants to be genuine about.
Maria wanders over to talk to Alice, and Owen tries to relax.
“Less like we’re sticking pins in you, if you wouldn’t mind,” Sam teases.
That startles a laugh out of Owen, at least.
“Ah ha!” Sam exclaims, taking rapid photos. “That’s more like it.”
“Sorry,” Owen says. “I’m crap at all of this.”
“It’s a wonder you got picked England captain, if that’s the case,” Sam says, moving forwards to take a boot from Owen. “Just one now, give us options for shots.“
Owen nods. “Rugby I know about,” he says, as Sam heads back to their camera. “On the pitch, we’re good. Media stuff -” he pulls a face.
“Well, it’s understandable that you’ve got your priorities.”
“Yeah, but this is -” Owen circles his shoulders. “I want to do it right, you know?”
“Photoshoots?” Sam asks wryly. “No, I know,” they wave a hand when Owen goes to clarify. “Sorry.”
“I think I’m actually worse than normal, I’m not sure why,” Owen laughs awkwardly, embarrassed. “But I’m not trying to look like a waxwork, I promise!”
And now it’s Sam startled into laughter. “I didn’t think you were,” they assure Owen. “I get it - it’s the exposure, yeah? All eyes on you. I’m not surprised it’s worse here - it’s a different angle than the other rugby stuff, maybe more personal. Of course the exposure’s worse.”
That’s it. Owen blinks at Sam - he hadn’t even realised the issue himself yet.
Sam gestures at the pronoun pin on their chest. “I get it,” they say wryly. “But you’ve got nothing to worry about, not here. You’ve given us plenty that’ll do, anyway,” they click through a few photos on their camera screen. “And no worse than some of the others, I assure you.”
Owen laughs - he can believe that, somehow. “One more set, and I’ll try to look like a normal person?” he offers.
“Sure,” Sam accepts.
As they raise the camera Owen tries to think of what he’s doing, of what Sam had said - he’s got nothing to worry about, not here. This is a cause he believes in. He thinks about that, about the people who’ve reached out to thank him, not the eyes on him, and thinks it might actually help.
“Much more human!” Sam praises, lowering the camera.
“If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible,” Alice remarks, coming to peer over Sam’s shoulder.
“Hey!” Owen protests.
“Are we done, then?” Alice asks.
“I think so,” Sam confirms.
“We might be taking a trip out to Saracens in a few days,” Maria tells Sam. “Get some shots of another player.”
“What, am I not good enough for you?” Owen says, before he can think better of it. He’s joking, and it had come out as such, but he can’t help but be slightly offended.
“You are more than we could have dreamed of,” Maria tells him seriously.
Owen wishes he hadn’t said anything, drops his eyes to the floor.
“But Alice pointed out that it might be worth having pictures of an ally from your squad, too,” Maria goes on.
“People already expect you to be behind the campaign,” Alice explains, when Owen turns to her. “It would put us more on par with the other teams to have a - a more neutral figure, shall we say, fronting the campaign for Saracens. You’ll be away on international duty over the campaign week anyway.”
Owen feels his forehead furrow.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll still have plenty of use for your pictures!” Maria assures him. “Just in a slightly different context - we’ll check in with you every step of the way, won’t do anything without your approval.”
“I mean, do whatever,” Owen tells her. “I just thought - if it’s out of club context, would pictures in an England shirt be better?”
“More than we could have dreamed of,” Sam echoes Maria, winking at Owen.
“We’ll talk to the RFU, but yes, absolutely,” Maria agrees, eager.
“And I thought - if you’ve got time, Maria, I wanted to talk about doing something more for the campaign? I don’t really know what,” Owen admits awkwardly, “but I know I’d like to do something.”
“I will make time,” Maria tells him seriously. “We didn’t want to overwhelm you, but anything you’re comfortable with we’ll gladly take.”
“But only what you’re comfortable with,” Sam adds, smiling. “We’ll take your entire life history, a detailed account of every time you encountered homophobia within rugby, precisely how that made you feel - but we’ll take a twenty second video asking people to support the campaign, too.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have time,” Alice tells them all. “We’re due for another photoshoot, Owen, and I’m sure someone’s due with Stonewall too.”
Owen nods, trying not to feel too let down. “Email me if you’ve got any ideas?” he says to Maria. “I don’t really know what would be best.”
“I’ll do that,” she promises, eyes sparkling. “And you email me any limits, yeah? Anything you don’t want to discuss.”
“I’ll do that,” Owen returns with a smile.
The next photo session isn’t half as interesting, and neither is any of the remaining conversation - occasional moments with Alice aside. Despite that Owen goes through the rest of the day with of a spring in his step - what he’s doing now is meaningless as well as tedious, but working with Stonewall already hasn’t been, won’t be. That’s using the media for something good, something other than furthering the interests of their sponsors, and the promise of it sits bright in Owen’s mind.