The Welshman is set to become the first person to referee 100 Test matches

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Role model and rugby referee Nigel Owens

Nigel Owens is on the verge of becoming refereeing’s first Test centurion. When he took charge of England v Georgia on the opening weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup, it was the 99th International he had refereed and this weekend’s France v Italy fixture will see him reach a record three figures.

The 49-year-old is often hailed for his feel for the game and is known for his jovial repartee during matches. He has made a significant impact off the field, too, by coming out in 2007 and being open with regards his sexuality. He has also been extremely honest when speaking about attempting suicide and struggling with an eating disorder.

So when Rugby World magazine put together an inclusive and diversity issue earlier this year, we thought he would be the perfect person to interview…

Rugby World: How do you feel about being a role model?

Nigel Owens: I could say that I don’t think I am, but I’d be lying to you because people tell me I am. I didn’t come out to be a role model, I had to do it for my own mental health and wellbeing. The fact is I’ve become a role model because of those experiences.

It’s nice to see a lot of people commenting that I’ve helped people, sons or daughters. I’m not doing it to be a role model, but if I can help other people who are going through difficult times in accepting who you are, coming out and so on, by speaking openly about my experiences because I’ve been in that situation myself, I will.

RW: Did fellow referee Craig Maxwell-Keys talk to you before he came out earlier this season?

NO: He did. I spoke to Craig a few times. There were probably a couple of years leading up to it before he came out. We had a lot of conversations on the phone and in person. I was reassuring him and telling him that in the nicest possible way people don’t care, it’s not an issue. He’s come to a stage in his life where he’s able to come out and let people know.

Quite a few people get in touch – over social media, when I’m out or they get hold of my details. I spend quite a bit of time speaking to people about things. It helped me immensely in dark times and it’s important for me to make sure I do find the time to speak to people.

RW: Where do you stand on rugby’s transgender debate?

NO: I totally support anybody who wants to have a sex change when they don’t feel comfortable in their body or with the person they are. I’ve never experienced that myself, but I’ve total respect if people want to transition.

If I were to have a sex change, I don’t think it would be fair to play rugby in women’s sport. I don’t think it would be right and safe for women who’ve had a sex change to play in a men’s team or men who’ve had a sex change to play in a women’s team. A bit of common sense is needed in a sport as physical as rugby or football or any sport of that nature.

RW: How do you think rugby could be more inclusive?

NO: Rugby is like everything else, it’s learning as it goes along. A lot has happened in the last decade, the last 20 years, the last 30-40 years. Rugby is learning how it can do things better but it’s on the right path. Like any change, it needs to happen gradually. I don’t want to hold back change, but for change to happen in the best way for everyone involved it needs to be a natural process, not to be forced.

Forty years ago, women playing rugby wasn’t seen as right. It’s taken time to build up to where it is now and continues to grow as generations change, as the world changes. It’s progressing in a natural way. I’d like to see people in their millions tuning in to watch as they do with the men’s game.

Equality is not being treated any better or any worse, it’s being treated the same. I wouldn’t want World Rugby to give me a final to tick some equality box, for it to be a feather in World Rugby’s cap to have an openly gay official in a major final and for them to think, ‘It’ll look good for us’. I’d say no if that was the case. It should be given to the person who is best for the job, who deserves to do it. Whether that’s a man or a woman, gay or straight, black or white, it should always be the best person to do that job.

referee Nigel Owens

Man in the middle: Nigel Owens takes charge of the 2015 World Cup final (Getty Images)

If I’d only got the World Cup final (in 2015) because I was gay, there would be a lot of resentment around me. It should be the best referee in the world – so what if you’re gay if you’re the best person to referee the final.

I was listening to some commentary on Radio 5 Live a few months ago and the woman (Sara Orchard) was excellent. I was listening thinking she’s a good commentator, not she’s a woman commentator. That’s the way it should be. Man or woman, if you’re good at the job, you do it. If she wasn’t good, a lot of people would be going, ‘I bet she only got the job because she’s a woman’. There would be resentment.

I don’t agree with it when people are put in positions to tick a box for diversity or inclusion. Equality is giving everyone an opportunity and making sure everything is done on merit.

RW: How does rugby get more people into refereeing?

NO: We have a huge number of young referees in Wales but a high percentage drop off for various reasons. When I take referee courses, I tell young referees to referee school and kids’ games because that’s where you learn. That’s where I started learning. But they are also difficult games because of parents. Governing bodies need to make sure parents and coaches, particularly at kids’ games, abide by the rules and values of rugby.

You need to be a certain type of person to be a referee because you will get abuse at all levels of the sport. It’s part of the theatre of it all and if spectators don’t like your decision they’ll tell you. But when it crosses that line from rugby humour to something personal and nasty that is totally different.

The abuse of young referees by some parents and coaches is not acceptable, and if a spectator does cross that line they need to be dealt with in the proper way. Getting that out of the game would help with the retention of referees.

Also, a lot of young referees are very ambitious and start out to become the next Wayne Barnes or next Nigel Owens. They want to be on telly every week and be professional in the sport, but only a handful make it to the top. There are only 12 referees at the World Cup. I’ve seen some young referees start, get to a certain level and when they’re told that unless they show signs of improvement they won’t take the next step up, they pack it in. They’re in refereeing for the wrong reason.

Above all, you want to go into refereeing because you’re passionate about the sport and enjoy it as a hobby. If you’re good at it, you’ll naturally climb the refereeing ladder and go into refereeing as a job. It’s fine to have ambition but you should be passionate. Most of the referees who’ve reached the top don’t get into it because they want to be an international referee but because they enjoy it. They gave it a go at their local club on a Sunday morning and enjoyed it. Those referees will stay in the sport.

RW: Do you think there’s too much backchat from players?

NO: When I’m refereeing a game, I don’t see or feel that. If I did, I’d have a word with them and deal with it in an appropriate way.

Personally I don’t see it too much but it is creeping into the game: players questioning referees or wanting things checked by the TMO. I think it’s a refereeing issue in allowing it to happen. Some referees want to be too pally and friendly with players, they want to be mates with players. It’s good to be friends with players and I’m good mates with plenty of players, but on that field they’re not your mates, you’re there to referee a game of rugby and deal with situations appropriately.

Calling people by their first name or saying, “Come here mate” is when it opens up dialogue and players think they can have a go at you at any time. I’m more than open to dialogue on the field at the right time and place and in the right way. If players cross the line as to what’s acceptable, then I’ll deal with it. It’s something as referees we’re in control of. When you’re refereeing, if you deal with those issues then players abide by the values of the game.

RW: Should referees be more open about performances – answer media questions, explain decisions and so on?

NO: It’s a tricky one. I wouldn’t have any issue doing it myself, I’d be more than happy to say, “Now I’ve seen this again, I got the decision wrong.” But it just opens up a can of worms. You get 99 decisions perfectly right and the one decision they want to talk about you may have got wrong for whatever reason. When you’re talking about abusing the referee, if there’s that line of communication where he can say he was wrong, the abuse starts there and then.

What I would like to see, and which I’ve done a bit of for S4C and Channel 4, is to have a referee as part of the punditry team, to explain decisions and the laws, to help educate the audience. You can say the decision is right or wrong, but you can do it in a way where you can explain the decision and the decision-making process so you’re helping people understand. If the referee hasn’t got it right, you can explain why he’s probably not got it right… ‘This is what he’s looking at and seeing from where he’s positioned, so there’s no way he’s seen this’.

RW: How do you respond if you feel you’ve made a bad decision?

NO: It does play on your mind. I can be driving home after a game thinking, ‘Did I get that right? How the hell did I get that wrong?’

I care about doing my best on the field for the players and if I get it wrong I’m disappointed not just for myself but for the players; I feel sometimes like I’ve let them down if I get a decision wrong.

I might have a restless night if I’ve got something wrong, but the following day you dust yourself down, learn from it and move on to the next game. I’ve learnt not to dwell on it.

RW: If you could change one law, what would it be?

NO: Substitutions. There are eight people on a bench, which is more than half a team. The second half of a game becomes stop-start because you’ve got substitutions being made, so I think changing that law would help the flow of the game.

Too many? Owens would like to reduce the number of replacements in rugby (Getty Images)

It would free up a lot more players to play in other games too. For example, last year in Wales there were 16 teams in the Premiership with eight players on the bench. Sixteen times eight (128) is a huge amount of players sitting on the bench who could be playing for someone else, their local team. It would free up numbers for the community game lower down.

Also, if you have players who just have to play 40-50 minutes a game, players build up to a bigger size because they only need to last for 40 minutes. If you have to play 80 minutes, you’d naturally be carrying less kg into the game. To me, if you reduce the bulk and size of players, you reduce the impact in the sport, the collisions, and maybe then that would lessen the risk of injuries.

I’d reduce substitutions down from eight to four or five. And you could only use substitutions when there was an injury, not when a player was tired. Then once a player comes off with injury, they can’t go back on.

RW: You’re in line to be the first person to referee 100 Tests. What would that mean to you?

NO: I’ve never been one for refereeing just to get numbers. I referee because I enjoy it. If I’m good enough, whatever level I’m at, I’ll carry on refereeing.

It would be something special to get to 100, a great honour and a privilege. I won’t carry on just for the sake of getting 100, though. Only if I’m still enjoying it and still good enough to do it at that level.

RW: What’s next when you do retire?

NO: Farming will take up a lot of my time. I’ve got a herd of Herefords. Then things I’ve not been able to do, like spending time with family and doing a lot of stuff at home.

And I’ll be staying involved with the WRU in some capacity, coaching other referees and that side of things.

RW: What’s been your favourite match to referee?

NO: There are European Cup finals, the 2015 World Cup final, that epic South Africa-New Zealand game in 2013, England-France on Six Nations Super Saturday in 2015 – that was a wonderful game of rugby at Twickenham. All of those have been very special.

The one that really stands out for me, though, is a Pencoed U12s game. I did a Q&A at Pencoed with Dan Lydiate a couple of years ago and the coach of the U12s asked if I’d referee the cup final between Pencoed and Cwmbran, I think it was. They were the two unbeaten sides in Wales at that age group. It was on a Sunday in January and I said, “No problem”. He said he wouldn’t tell the kids so it was a surprise.

I was refereeing Leicester-Ulster at Welford Road on the Saturday night at 5.30pm in the European Cup. I rang Pencoed and said I’d drive back straight after the game but could they put the kick-off back an hour or so from 10.30am, so they moved it to midday.

The kids didn’t know I was coming, so to see their faces brighten up and jaws drop when I walked into the changing rooms was the best thing for me. Then their little winger said: “I hope you referee better today than last night!” That’s what it’s all about.

RW: Who has been the best captain to deal with?

NO: I’ve worked with so many great captains – Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Chris Robshaw was always good, Rory Best.

The one who probably stands out, because English is his second language as well, is Thierry Dusautoir. He’s an absolute gentleman as a player and a captain, on and off the field, win or lose. I always found him excellent; he was a pleasure and a delight to referee.

RW: Who is the best player in the world right now?

NO: I’d go for another Frenchman – Antoine Dupont. He’s a brilliant player and I think he’ll go on to be one of the stars of French rugby and world rugby.

Star performer: Toulouse and France scrum-half Antoine Dupont (Getty Images)

He’s totally different to the majority of scrum-halves. He’s quiet on the field, you never see him complaining or waving his arms in the air. He’ll say, “Mr Nigel, can I ask you something?” He’s absolutely brilliant to referee.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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