Nigel Owens says England supporters should feel free to shout abuse at him for his officiating tomorrow but not his sexuality when the Welsh referee takes charge of his first game at Twickenham since he was the target of homophobic and racial abuse at the stadium last November.
Two England supporters received a two-year ban from Twickenham and fined £1,000 each following a Rugby Football Union investigation into allegations that Owens had been subjected to “nasty, foul-mouthed, racist and homophobic abuse” during England’s defeat by New Zealand.
Owens, in an interview with the Telegraph, commended the RFU’s action and said he expected a “warm welcome” at Twickenham as England attempt to win their first Six Nations title since 2011. Despite admitting that the news of the abuse, which was highlighted by a supporter called Keith Wilson from Yorkshire in a letter to The Guardian, had led to him considering quitting the sport, Owens said he had no second thoughts about refereeing at Twickenham again.
The 43-year-old, who has previously admitted that he attempted suicide before coming out to his parents 17 years ago, applauded the RFU for its handling of the investigation but urged supporters tomorrow not to “cross the line” during what he described would be “probably the biggest game” of his career.
He said his message to supporters tomorrow would be to be “passionate about supporting your team and don’t be afraid of shouting things – a bit of banter and a bit of humour and what we have come to expect from the terraces in rugby” but also to consider the impact of their words on others around them.
“Don’t shy away from that, but just be sure that when you do shout something it doesn’t cross the line of what is acceptable or not,” said Owens, who is widely regarded as one the top referees in the world game.
“If they are shouting things that are unacceptable about me, it does not really bother me because I won’t hear it, but there could be somebody sitting around them who is dealing with issues in their life and is finding things difficult and to hear these people shouting sometimes can be enough to tip somebody over the edge.
“I have been in that situation myself and know how difficult it is. Shout a bit of abuse and friendly banter by all means and I hope that is never lost from the terraces. But think before you are going to shout something personal that can hurt. It won’t hurt me, but it may hurt somebody sitting a few seats away from you.”
Owens revealed in the aftermath of the incident in November that he had received messages of support from a wide spectrum, including former England footballer Graeme Le Saux and members of Stuart Lancaster’s England squad.
He split the money from the two guilty supporters, who did not send any apology to him, four ways to charities of which he is a patron, including Macmillan Nurses, who looked after his mother when she was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Bullies Out in Cardiff, the Treat Trust Wales in Swansea, and Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff.
He also received a “lovely letter” from RFU chairman Bill Beaumont to apologise for the abuse that was directed at him.
Owens has since refereed four games in England, including the Champions’ Cup matches between Harlequins and Wasps, Leicester and Toulon and Northampton versus Racing Métro as well as being a touch judge during England’s victory over Australia at Twickenham, and received only positive comments and support.
Yet he issued a note of caution that homophobic abuse, while limited to a small minority in sport and society, remained an issue. “I haven’t experienced anything since but if anybody thinks there is going to be nothing bad going to be shouted in any stadium any more, then I think we are kidding ourselves because there will be the odd individual or group that no matter how hard you try, there are bad people in life,” Owens said.
“I am sure that if anything serious happens, not just at Twickenham but any other stadium, that the governing bodies in rugby will do all they can to deal with it and to prevent it happening.
“We have to be realistic and understand if you have 85,000 people in that stadium, it is not possible to control what people are going to shout and in any stadium in the world you can get a few individuals [who shout abuse].
“The biggest positive that came out of this negative was that individuals in that stadium were willing to stand up to this homophobic abuse and make a stance that it is not acceptable. That is the most important message to get out of this unfortunate incident.
“That is the best way to deal with any sort of unacceptable abuse. The people there have to stand up and be counted.”
Daniel Brennan, 16-year-old son of legendary rugby player Trevor Brennan, is set to earn his first cap for France at under-17 level after being named in a 25-man squad.