The match was England vs Italy in the 2007 Six Nations. It was a relatively irrelevant game for most fans, and went according to script. England, who would come a disappointing third in the competition overall, put in an uninspiring performance to overcome a mediocre Italy outfit – few batted an eyelid at the result. But for a young Nigel Owens, the game was unforgettable: it was his first at the Six Nations level.
When I talk to him, he tells me about the experience. “I remember refereeing Martin Johnson for the first time as a young referee doing my first ever game at the European level, and with his presence and stature in the game, you are actually thinking ‘well I’m telling Martin Johnson off here’.”
The moment seems to have surprised him, as if he did not have the right to be telling off this giant, in both senses, of the game. But a lot has changed since then. Owens now has nearly 400 professional refereeing appearances, and is no longer surprised or amazed by the people he comes face to face with as part of his job.
“It feels like anything I guess, you just do your job. It doesn’t matter who the player is or what the size of him is.” He says that the retiring politeness of rugby players towards their often much smaller referees is unsurprising when you are involved in the game. “If you’re ever really involved in rugby, you will know that the referee’s decision is final and the players tend to respect that. The values of the sport allow the referee to tell the players off no matter what their size is.”
“Like anything, this is just me doing my job and rugby has always been that. So that’s why some people looking from the outside in will think that that is something special, and maybe it is something special, but for me it doesn’t make any difference at all if you’re facing a 6ft 8 player or a 5ft 8 player.”
Owens refereed his first match in 1987 (the match was between the under-15s teams of Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire – he was 16). At that point, rugby was still an amateur sport and hadn’t entered its modern professionalism. I ask Owens what else has changed in the game since that amateur era.
“The game is now faster and more in-play time. The other thing that has changed is the discipline of the sides. There are now procedures that inspire professionalism and accountability, you don’t see twenty years ago the old dirty games where there’s a big fight and players hitting people on the ground. A lot of that is gone from the game now and so that has changed as well over the years.”
Just as the players have professionalised, so has the officiating. Technology has entered the game in the form of a review system and the multiple cameras which film even the lowest level matches mean that every fan and viewer can play the referee. Sometimes, of course, the technology still abandons the referee. Owens, in a now-famous moment, had to be handed a phone from the sidelines in a 2012 match between Munster and Glasgow to communicate with the Television Match Official (TMO).
Owens says that the new technology has made the refereeing job more complicated.
“It’s added more pressure on me as a referee. The pressure on refs now is f
ive times more than it was five years ago, and 10-15 times more than it was twenty years. The pressure on refs is huge – you can’t comprehend it until you do it.”
Despite the increased pressure, Owens still has a dispassionate view of his unusual job. “You are just there to do your job, so all I need to do is referee to the best of my ability to keep learning and that’s all I am focussed on doing. So if people want to criticise, that’s out of my control. As long as I work my hardest and do my best that is all that matters to me.”
Despite the increased scrutiny, Owens still relies on trusted friends rather than media pundits. “People that I trust will give me the feedback that I will take on board if I need to. Those are the people I will listen to, more than people will say and what they will write.”
Owens is not a normal referee. When he talks to me he is in an official mode. He is direct, impatient, and makes an interviewer nervous about putting a word wrong.
You feel the presence which allows the small Owens to talk down to some of the biggest personalities in international sport. However, when he is off the pitch, he uses his personal experiences to encourage and help others.
Owens publicly came out in 2007 during an interview with Wales on Sunday. At the time, he said: “It’s such a big taboo to be gay in my line of work, I had to think very hard about it because I didn’t want to jeopardise my career. Coming out was very difficult and I tried to live with who I really was for years. I knew I was ‘different’ from my late teens, but I was just living a lie.”
Ten years on and he thinks that the taboo has decreased in rugby. He tells me: “rugby itself is an environment that has a huge amount of diversity and its inclusiveness is something that the sport can be proud of. In rugby, in my case in Gareth Thomas’ case, and I know many many club rugby players who are out as gay and are just one of the normal boys at the club. Rugby is a sport that you can be yourself in.”
The picture of rugby as an inclusive sport is one that may be hard to accept. Only recently, Australia full-back Israel Folau caused controversy by claiming that God’s plan for gay people was “HELL”. Owens attacked Folau for the comments, but doesn’t think that they say anything wider about the sport. “Rugby is breaking down those barriers, you have individuals in society and all sports and all walks of life and there are individuals
Owens has also made the choice to speak publicly about his experiences with his mental health. He has talked about a suicide attempt when he was 26 and his struggles with eating disorder bulimia nervosa. He says that the experience is often difficult. “It’s not easy to talk about it. The only reason I am talking about it is because I know it is helping people.
“Talking about the mental health has helped me I guess, but I accepted and dealt with mental health issues before I started talking about them open and publicly. By speaking about them, it has made me realise that I was far from the only one with mental health issues and also what a huge problem it is. Particularly among men and boys as well, people don’t seem to talk about it and how important it is that I am sharing that story and how much it is helping other people as well. I don’t talk about it for my own good, I talk about it because I know it helps other people.”
Owens has been speaking at an event before I talk to him. He says that “a woman came up to me and said that her son had just come out to her a couple of weeks ago and it was a huge amount of help to her in realising what her son was going through or had been through. That’s the reason I do it.” Owens has opened himself up to vulnerability and has put himself in a position that must often be painful or uncomfortable. Yet, he does it because he has seen a problem and wants to use his experiences to address it. It is an act of social awareness that can only be praised.
It is also an act which has made Owens well-known. He had already gained a reputation on the pitch for his quick-witted one liners, and his often repeated phrase that “this is not soccer”. However, Owens rise to prominence has not been without criticism. Former Leicester utility back, Austin Healey, recently said that Owens may be “too big to referee”. The Welshman is quick to attack when I repeat the suggestion that he is a celebrity. “I wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity referee. I disagree with that statement. I am not a celebrity but I am well-known.”
“I am well-known, I guess, because of my ability as a referee being able to ref games has made me well-known. I haven’t become well-known because I want to be well-known, it is just a by-product of me being good at what I do. Because I was the first open gay in professional rugby to come out, and because I spoke about it publicly, that also has made me well-known within other parts of society.”
I ask him specifically about Healey’s criticism, and he again rejects the idea that he is now a celebrity. “I don’t talk about the mental health issues and the sexuality and the depression because I want to be a celebrity. I talk about it, no matter how painful it can be, because I know it helps other people.
“My style of refereeing is just my natural style of who I am, so I don’t say these things in order to be funny or to be well liked or well known. I won’t say something funny because I want to get some YouTube clicks on it. I don’t do it for that, I do it because it’s just who I am. People like Austin Healey want to do an article because they want to make themselves a celebrity – well, that is entirely up to them. It’s not why I do it.”
Owens also seems to be personally offended by the idea that he has become a worse referee in recent years. “I would say that I reffed the World Cup final two-and-a-half years ago, and I was the World Rugby referee of the year, and refereed the 2015 final and the England-France game which was seen as one of the great games of the Six Nations ever.” Perhaps Owens’ steel façade actually covers an individual who is, unsurprisingly, affected by criticism.
Yet, like many sports personalities, Owens is himself problematic. When I ask him about the ‘lad culture’ problem in rugby he starts by addressing it directly. “If it means acts of violence, sexism, drinking, and shunning sensitivity when you’re in a group of mates, then I haven’t come across that in rugby myself and if it does exist in rugby, then it’s certainly changing with the inclusiveness of the sport and society in general and quite rightly so too.”
But he then tries to escape facing the problem with a semantic game. He starts debating what the real meaning of ‘lad culture’ is, rather than facing up to its dark and inherent existence within the sport. “If six mates were having a beer somewhere, is our conversation and the way that we swear ‘lads culture’ because we wouldn’t do those things in front of [our] wives or girlfriends? I am not sure what ‘lads culture’ really means then in that sense. Or can it be defined in different forms acceptable and not acceptable forms?”
Owens’ linguistic excuse for rugby starts to fall through and you get the sense that he is avoiding the issue. “It’s the same, I suppose, as if I’m speaking in front of a group of men or at a dinner with men and I use the odd swear word. I guess that is ‘lad culture’, because if I was speaking in front of the WI or a group of women I would not use the swear words. I would not use it in front of children. So, [it depends] what is defined as ‘lad culture’ I suppose, and that is down to what people define it as.”
He tries to make back some ground by saying: “What people need to differentiate between, I believe, is what is right and wrong, and what is acceptable or not, and what is banter or and not. ‘Lads culture’ is used sometimes as an excuse by people, ‘lads culture’ is irrelevant. What should be prescient are the morals of right and wrong. There’s nothing wrong with ‘lad culture’, or the women’s culture or ladies culture: I think what people should judge people on is what is acceptable and what is not and what is right and what is wrong.”
But it is clear that, like many in the game, he does not see that rugby has a problem. While his – and many others’ – attitudes stay the same then rugby cannot truly modernise. If you take his view of rugby, it is a utopia and that is simply not the truth.
Nigel Owens is a complex man with contradictions in his personality. While he evidently has views which many would see as problematic, he has also acted to help others and has not shied away from discussing his own experiences so that others can feel happier in themselves. He is a breath of fresh and positive air to rugby, and yet sees rugby as a game which doesn’t need that fresh air. He brings modernisation to a game that he sees as already modernised enough.
There is no suggestion that Owens should escape scrutiny for his more contradictory opinions. But he is a great referee, a great inspiration for those who have suffered in silence, and, ultimately, a great man – there is no doubt that Owens does more good than harm.