“What a guy” is really the only way to describe Nigel Owens. The Welshman officiated the Rugby World Cup final in 2015, is one of the most respected referees in the game and has publicly discussed his sexuality, for instance in the BBC documentary True to Myself, where many might shy away.
Just as impressively, as he revealed to Coach, he can go from a European Cup match on a Saturday night to an Under-12s game in Wales on a Sunday morning. What. A. Guy.
What inspiring behaviour have you witnessed on the rugby pitch?
Just after I blew the whistle at the World Cup final, David Pocock, the Australian number 8, ran over to shake my hand and say, “Thanks very much, Nigel, you had a great game.” This guy had just lost out on a winner’s medal and the first thought in his mind was to find me and say thanks. Bloody hell, I thought, that shows a lot about the sport I’m in and the integrity of people like him. And then 20 seconds later, Jerome Kaino, the All Black back row, ran over to say, “I watched your programme about coming out as gay on the BBC last night, and I thought it was great. You can be very proud of yourself.” For him to interrupt celebrating the biggest moment of his rugby career to share that with me was amazing.
Why do rugby players respect the referee more than footballers?
There are a lot of good people involved in football, and we can’t take a moral high ground because there is plenty that rugby could do better. You’ll see people trying to gouge an eye out, or kicking an opponent in the head when they’re on the floor. But what rugby does well is discipline. People are punished harshly, and nobody would last in the game if they continually used foul behaviour.
It starts with dissent – that’s a no-go in rugby. Referees can add an instant ten yards to a penalty, or brandish a yellow card, and we know we will be supported by the governing bodies, by the players and even most of the crowd.
Why did you want to be a referee?
I was playing full-back for my school team and we hadn’t won a game all season. In the last minute of the final match, we scored a try to make the score 12-12, and I told the captain I would take the conversion. It was right in front of the posts, and I thought I’d be the hero of the school. But I sliced it so wide it nearly hit the corner flag.
A sports teacher called John Beynon took me aside and gently suggested that I try refereeing. My entire career is down to missing that conversion.
Who helped you at the start?
I once gave two players in youth match a huge bollocking in front of everybody. One of the parents who was watching, who had played for Llanelli himself, told me afterwards that if a referee had done that to him, he wouldn’t have respected him. It would be much better to tap them on the shoulder as they were running to the next line-out, and quietly say, “I saw what happened back there, lads, now don’t do it again”. It’s actually far more personal, and that means it will get the point across more effectively that any dramatics.
What qualities does a referee need?
You need to be able to cope with abuse. That talent is either in you or it isn’t. A few people try refereeing and after a couple of weeks, they say, “I just can’t cope”. If you can deal with the moaning and swearing, it usually means you can deal with all the other pressure too.
Are you ever tempted to answer back when you’re being booed?
As far as the crowd goes, there are definitely times where you feel like answering back, or saying, “I’m right. I’ve read all the law books, have you?” But you can’t do that. A smile is sometimes the best tactic, although it does infuriate angry people even more.
How did it feel to referee the World Cup final?
I still haven’t sat down and taken it all in, how lucky and privileged I am. The World Cup only comes round every four years, so in 40 years’ time, there’ll only be another nine people who have done it. Probably more people will have gone to Mars. I haven’t actually watched the video yet. I want to save it for a special occasion, like when I retire, or on my mum’s birthday because she’s no longer with us.
What was your happiest experience in rugby?
I had to referee Leicester against Ulster in a European Cup match on a Saturday night in 2013. The next day, I had promised a local Welsh team called Pencoed that I would referee their Under-12s in a match against Cwmbran. To see the kids’ faces when I walked into the changing room to check their boots, well, that was a moment when I thought, “This is what the game of rugby is about. This is why I got into the game, not for the cup finals or the Tri-Nations deciders.” To cap it off, one of the kids shook my hand at the end of the game and said, “Thanks very much, Nigel. And by the way, you were much better today than you were on the telly last night.” Brilliant!
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Grub Smith contributed interviews and features to the print edition of Coach, which ran from 2015 to 2016.