Owens emerges from 'dark place' into limelight

2015-10-28 16:17
Nigel Owens (AP)

London - In most sports it is considered the sign of a good referee if he is not noticed but when charismatic Welshman Nigel Owens has the whistle on the rugby pitch, players and fans are usually more than happy to allow him his own cameo.

Owens will take charge of Saturday's World Cup final and it is an appointment that is richly deserved and has been almost universally welcomed.

"He has been the outstanding official in the game for years," Ian McGeechan wrote in his Daily Telegraph column on Wednesday.

"His game management is exceptional, especially his rapport with the players. He is strict with them but always keeps a clear channel of communication."

Fans have become used to hearing the officials via "ref-link" devices at major matches and Owens has developed something of a cult following.

When intervening in a spat between Welsh brothers Scott and Craig Quinnell in a Welsh club match, a young Owens admonished them by saying: "What would your mother think?"

During a World Cup match at soccer club Newcastle United's St James' Park a few weeks ago, Owens told Scotland's Stuart Hogg: "Dive like that again and come back here to play in two weeks" while he often intervenes in pushing incidents by telling the players they are being "immature".

Owens's refrain of "this is not football" to players appealing or complaining has become something of a catch phrase and has even spawned a calendar with him on the cover.

The jokes and chastisements are accepted because he is held in high regard by the players for his understanding of the game.

He was in charge in Johannesburg in 2013 when New Zealand beat South Africa 38-27, with many observers saying that his ability to keep the game moving played a large role in it being labelled "Match of the Century."

"I'm not like some refs who could quote you the number of the law, with or without the brackets," Owens said in a recent interview.

"Of course I know them. But knowing the laws too well and technically applying those laws, well, you'll never have a game of rugby. You've got to have a bit of empathy as well."

Excellent refereeing is only one half of the Nigel Owens story, however, as his position as one of the few high-profile gay men in international sport has brought him another kind of fame.

Owens came out publicly as gay eight years ago and has since told of his dark days before that, even coming close to suicide when he took an overdose and passed out on a Welsh mountainside with a shotgun by his side, only to be rescued by a police helicopter.

"I was going downhill very fast, to a very dark place where there was no way out for me," Owens told the BBC in an interview broadcast this week.

"I left a note for my mum and dad and said I can't carry on anymore with my life. I didn't tell them why.

"I left the house that night with a shotgun loaded and with boxes of paracetamol and a bottle of whisky. If I hadn't have gone into a coma I have no doubts whatsoever I would have pulled that trigger."

Having emerged from that period, Owens now finds himself something of a torchbearer for the fight against homophobia in sport.

"We are extremely proud of Nigel Owens for being selected as the referee for the final," Jeff Wilson, chairman of International Gay Rugby, told Reuters.

"By being an openly gay man, he proves that factors like sexual orientation can and will be a non-issue in the sport.

"By continuing to be that role model, he shows LGBT people that everyone in the sport of rugby has the chance to rise to the level of their abilities.

"World Rugby has shown dedication to diversity and inclusion on a regular basis with the intent of actively eliminating homophobia at all levels of the game.

"These are very optimistic times for LGBT athletes, supporters, officials and administrators in the sport of rugby."

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