Nigel Owens: Grassroots rugby helped me through the dark days – now I'm glad I can pay the game back
Nigel Owens says refereeing a derby in Wales is just as rewarding as taking charge of the World Cup final
There was a familiar figure out there on Gowerton Rugby Club pitch. In his bright yellow shirt, tugging at the waistband of his black shorts, grinning broadly as he whistled for a scrum, was the referee who took charge of last Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final, Nigel Owens.
It may be a long way from Twickenham (195 miles to be precise) but Owens said he jumped at the chance to referee this Swalec National League Division One West local derby between Gowerton and Crymych.
There may be no big screen, no Television Match Official, no ref cam to beam pictures of the front row round the world (which, judging by the look of them is just as well); there may be a crowd of no more than 350 rather than 80,000, and a fly half who, unlike Dan Carter last week, was obliged to watch his successful conversions fly on to the railway line bordering the pitch.
For Owens, however, there is no place he would rather be a week after presiding over the biggest game of his life than whistling away in west Wales.
“I didn’t think twice,” he said, speaking in the cramped referee’s changing room ahead of the kick-off. “The most important part of the game is the grassroots. Whatever you achieve, never forget where you came from. I went through some difficult times, if it wasn’t for the people who supported me then I wouldn’t have done the Rugby World Cup final. Now it’s my chance to pay them back.” Not, Owens admitted, that he had always adopted such a broad perspective.
“I learned a hard lesson about 10 years ago. I did a European Cup game, Leinster against Wasps. And the next match was a schools game. I’d just refereed [Brian] O’Driscoll, [Lawrence] Dellaglio, I was running around thinking to myself what was I doing refereeing a bunch of kids? Big mistake. I was bloody awful. In the end one of the kids said to me, you’re useless ref. I sent him off because I was annoyed with him, but more to the point I was annoyed with myself. Thing was, he was right. I’ve seen him since and apologised.”
At Gowerton Owens wasn’t remotely awful. Watched by a minibus load of his friends and family, including his father Geraint who had come the 10 miles from his home village of Pontyberem, he was engaged, involved, absolutely in control. So much so that Stephen Howells, the club chairman, said it was the first game in an age hereabouts without fisticuffs. Indeed, all the players were on their best behaviour.
“At one point I was going to say something, I’m normally quite vocal,” said the Gowerton captain Craig Thomas. “Then I realised who it was. You don’t mess with Nigel.” And Nigel was not messing with them.
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“For the Gowerton and Cymrych lads, this was as important for them as the Rugby World Cup final was for New Zealand and Australia and I have to respect that,” he said. “Not easy, mind. I haven’t kept score or kept time myself for about 10 years. I’ve got no neutral touch judges, they’ll be trying to nick 10 yards with every throw. It’s a different type of pressure. But I won’t treat it any different. I’ll be as alert.” But then, he added, were he to relax and let his standards drop, the locals would be quick to let him know.
“At Twickenham last weekend I couldn’t hear individual shouts from the crowd. If I make a wrong call in this game, I’ll hear about it. I’m not sure if they know the laws of the game better than the Aussies and New Zealanders. But they certainly think they do.” He was right there. A gaggle of Crymych supporters standing behind a rope on the far side of the pitch from the single storey club bar kept up a steady buzz of advice.
“He’s a homer,” one shouted when Owens disallowed a try for the visitors. “I said homer, everybody.”
It is a cliché much employed by pundits to suggest that the less we see of a referee during a match the better it has been. Unless that referee is Nigel Owens, that is. The fitting of microphones to rugby officials has turned the Welshman into a star. An accomplished after-dinner speaker, his no-nonsense officiating has added hugely to the game’s fun.
“This is not soccer,” “I’ve got the whistle thank you”, “I refereed you often enough for you to understand my English by now”: he has filled a lexicon of one-liners.
And these days entirely comfortable with his own sexuality (his partner plays for Pontyberem Rugby Club). The world’s most prominent gay match official is more than happy to make fun of himself, as he did once when chastising an ill-directed line-out throw with the words “I’m straighter than that.” Not that he sees the forging of new Owensisms as his main purpose.
“Rugby is such a complex game it helps having someone explain what’s going on,” he said of his clean, clear on-pitch commentary.
“You don’t see yourself as part of the entertainment, but you are I guess. You know people can hear what you say, but when you’re in a game you have to concentrate so much, you’re not aware of what you’re saying. It’s certainly not a performance. I think once you start playing up to it, you’re on a loser.”
There may have been no hint of playing up to it at Gowerton, but there was no doubt for the regulars thronging the terrace in front of the bar, the presence of Owens created a sense of occasion. One middle-aged woman was so excited when he shook her hand it was as if she had enjoyed a visitation from a boy band. This was a proper celebrity coming to visit their west Wales redoubt, the only Brit who got anywhere near the Rugby World Cup final.
“Yeah, that was a pretty desperate straw to grasp at,” he smiled. “I was only the referee. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very proud moment. I know back in Pontyberem there were banners and bunting put up in my honour, which was lovely. Just before the game when the All Blacks were doing the haka, I thought of those people and thought: don’t let them down.”
He didn’t. As everyone involved agreed, his officiating was as close to flawless as it could be. Not that he was taking any credit for the success of the occasion.
“The players are way more important,” he said. “Here today as much as at Twickenham. Whether it is a good game is beyond my control. Sure, a ref can spoil a good game by over-whistling it. But he can’t make a bad game good.”
At Gowerton he did not need worry. This was a corker of a game. While lacking the athleticism and skill of his last outing, there was no shortage of commitment and effort as the home side triumphed 28-18.
“A bloody good game, actually,” was the Owens analysis. “I had to blow for a couple of penalties to catch my breath.” Next week he is taking charge of Toulon against Bath in the European Cup. Gowerton, meanwhile, are playing host to Gorseinon. As yet no referee has been appointed.