Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, rugby’s most capped Test referee NIGEL OWENS talks about breaking barriers, why he disagrees with the quota system and his admiration for SA rugby.
Sport24 asked: From the brink of suicide to refereeing the Rugby World Cup final. How would you describe the remarkable turnaround in your personal and professional life?
Nigel Owens: I was in a very dark place at one point in my life and came within a few minutes of not being here anymore. There was a time when I thought that I couldn’t carry on living, let alone think about refereeing on the world stage. I was living a lie and trying to hide who I was because there was no one else at the time who had revealed that they were gay in the macho world of rugby. Dealing with my sexuality and accepting who I was took time, but I’m extremely thankful for the wonderful sport of rugby. I owe much more to rugby than rugby will ever owe to me. I have received a tremendous amount of support from my fellow referees, players, pundits and supporters and feel both blessed and privileged. I firmly believe that unless you are happy within yourself and your environment, you can’t excel and be the best you can be. Once I was able to be myself, which rugby allowed me to do, my refereeing improved and the proof is in the pudding. Refereeing the 2015 World Cup final was the pinnacle of my career and something I’ll reflect on with pride.
Sport24 asked: Your passion for rugby is palpable. What do you love most about the code?
Nigel Owens: The fact that rugby union is a game for all. It’s a unique sport because you have the tall, short, big, small, thin, fat, fast and slow all playing the game. However, rugby is not only a game for all shapes and sizes. It’s an extremely inclusive sport and no matter your sexual orientation, skin colour or religious beliefs, it’s a code that everyone can participate in. One of the biggest pressures facing the sport is not to change the game for change’s sake. If we try to alter the laws and attempt to get rid of the scrum or depower the maul, for argument’s sake, we are going to make rugby a game which many players can no longer play. While there are certain changes that we can embrace, I feel strongly about not taking away from the phases of the game, which ultimately differentiate rugby from other sports.
Sport24 asked: Former Test referee Jonathan Kaplan has questioned whether a referee’s job has become too complicated for one person to handle. Do you share his concerns?
Nigel Owens: There is no doubt that the pressures on referees has heightened. Years ago, there were times when you wouldn’t know that you made a mistake until you re-watched the match. Now you know within a couple of seconds if you have made an error because you see the incident on the big screen. People need to realise that you can’t referee a rugby game without making a mistake. You are going to get something wrong – it’s impossible not to in the modern game. To draw a comparison, every single player on the field is going to make a mistake over the 80 minutes, whether it’s missing touch, making a forward pass or slipping a tackle. The better referees make fewer mistakes and those errors won’t really matter in the context of the match. I don’t believe that there is place in the game for two on-field referees. If you are going to bring in two referees, in my view, you leave things open to different interpretation and consistency could suffer as a result. What we need to do is work together better as a team of officials – the referee, assistant referees and the TMO – and then there won’t be a call or a need for two referees on the field at the same time. In my book, there are already three on-field referees. Within the protocols of the game, the assistant referees are entitled to offer input in terms of any decision they feel the man in the middle has missed. With three pairs of eyes already closely viewing the contest, I don’t see the need for two referees and feel that it would only bring bigger problems to the game.
Sport24 asked: How have you managed to strike the balance between technical competence and artistic input on the field of play? And what’s the secret to your success?
Nigel Owens: The secret to my success and the advice I offer young referees rising through the ranks is to always be willing to learn. What I have done throughout my career is surround myself with people who I trust and that offer good advice with the right intention. Over the years, I learnt from people like former Test referee Derek Bevan in terms of bettering my on-field performances. Meanwhile, off-field my parents taught me respect and how to talk to people. When I started refereeing, I remember officiating a game in Wales and there was an old head playing for the one side. We were half an hour into the match and the player in question had been trying to influence my decisions, so I said to him: “Hey, who is refereeing this game?” And he turned around and retorted: “Well, it’s not you at the moment.” He was probably right at the time and I learnt a lot from that comment. Going forward, I made sure that whenever I refereed a game, I was in charge and not the players. The most difficult aspect for me or any other referee to get right is the balance of knowing when to blow the whistle and knowing when not to. That is not a balance that many referees get right, which is why there are only a select few of us at the very top of the game.
Sport24 asked: You have refereed in both the Six Nations and Rugby Championship. How would you compare and contrast the two competitions and the overall standard of play?
Nigel Owens: The most recent Six Nations tournament produced a pretty poor standard of play compared to the 2015 edition of the Rugby Championship and the Rugby World Cup. Last year, there were some brilliant matches in the Six Nations, which climaxed with the final round of fixtures dubbed “Super Saturday”. However, there are two main factors which see teams competing in the Six Nations fall behind other countries. To my knowledge, the Six Nations may be the only competition left in the world without a bonus point system. As a consequence, northern hemisphere teams are not encouraged to go out and score tries like their southern hemisphere counterparts. I believe the standard of play would improve if the Six Nations adopted a bonus point system similar to the one currently used in Super Rugby. The other factor to consider is the weather conditions. The Six Nations is played in the middle of the UK winter, with rainy, cold and windy conditions a constant diet. On the flipside, teams in the south generally play on dry fields which encourages an attacking style.
Sport24 asked: You have refereed the Springboks on a number of occasions. What do you most admire about South African rugby and why are our players so sought-after abroad?
Nigel Owens: I admire the passion and pride of South African rugby players and what the sport means to South Africa as a nation. Whenever I referee in South Africa, I receive a great welcome which makes it such a pleasure to visit and I hope that will continue in the future. South Africa possesses a huge amount of quality players – they are big, strong and skilful – but they are also quality people which makes them popular signings for foreign-based clubs. When you are both a good player and person, you are a valuable asset to any rugby team. Meanwhile, I have heard that the Jozi Cats have become Africa’s first gay and inclusive rugby club. That is a huge credit to the people of South Africa in terms of moving with the times. However, something I don’t agree with in South Africa is the quota system. While I don’t know all the ins and outs, I don’t like politics interfering in sport. It shouldn’t matter whether you are black or white, gay or straight. You should not be treated any better or any worse. You must be afforded equal opportunities and selected in terms of ability and merit.
Jean de Villiers
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