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Nigel Owens a popular ref at RWC

2015-10-16 10:27
Nigel Owens (AP)

Cardiff - Wearing a microphone on the rugby field has been good for Nigel Owens. Some say good for rugby fans, too.

Owens has an entertaining and effective way of refereeing. As an occasional stand-up comedian, he is supremely confident in his ability to defuse tension with a humorous touch.

Early in the ongoing Rugby World Cup, Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg received a glancing touch from a charging South Africa prop forward, Tendai Mtawarira, and fell to the ground theatrically. It took place at St James' Park, home of English football Premier League side Newcastle.

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Hogg surely felt Owens' words more than Mtawarira's challenge.

"If you want to dive like that again," he told Hogg, "come back here in two weeks and play," when the football is on.

A few years ago in a European club match, Owens reminded scrumhalf Tobie Botes, playing for Italian side Treviso, not to whine.

"If I hear you shouting for anything again, I'm going to be penalising you," he told Botes. "This is not soccer. Is that clear?" Owens told the South African-born scrumhalf.

Owens has the marquee match-up among the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals this weekend, officiating in the New Zealand v France showdown in Cardiff on Saturday. The players have welcomed the appointment of the 44-year-old bilingual Welshman.

"He's a brilliant bloke and he makes it fun as well," France flank Bernard Le Roux said. "He's really fair and he's a brilliant ref. He's really dominant, he knows what he wants."

All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith agreed.

"I always enjoy when Nigel Owens is reffing," Smith said. "He talks a lot as a ref, he communicates well, and he controls games really well."

Owens commands respect from the players. For instance, on the tournament's opening weekend he had words with Georgia captain Mamuka Gorgodze. A behemoth even by rugby standards, Gorgodze crouched, hands on knees, and nodded respectfully as Owens spoke.

"I've had three penalties here now, if I think the next one is deliberate I'll sin-bin someone," Owen told Gorgodze, who turned to address his players, waving an imaginary card in the air, warning them to behave.

But the other part of what Owens said that day underlines why players respect him so much.

"I'm not going to start the clock until you've had a word (with your players) about discipline," he told Gorgodze. "When you're ready, let me know, and I'll start the clock."

As well as giving Gorgodze a sense of responsibility, it was also a mark of respect from Owens, who prefers not to officiate in an overly strict way.

"He's a very good referee, if not the best," France flank Yannick Nyanga said. "Whatever the occasion or the context, the pressure that's surrounding a game, he's always on top of things."

Owens is popular on Twitter with 143 000 followers.

He recently posted a picture of himself visiting Buckingham Palace, and in another post asked if anyone knew of a good hairdresser in Cardiff because he is in "desperate need of a crop."

Lightheartedness aside, he is an outstanding technical referee: One of only two to take charge of consecutive European Cup finals, and a third final in 2012.

Of course, he gets the big matches and finals only when a Welsh team isn't involved, and Owens is a big fan of Wales.

In an interview with The Associated Press in February, Owens described himself as among "five or six referees" capable of officiating the Rugby World Cup final on October 31. "The pinnacle of anybody's career," he called it. But that would also mean his beloved Wales didn't make it.

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