Nigel Owens exclusive interview: 'My 100th Test could be the last - this is my final season as an international referee'

Gavin Mairs
·8-min read
Nigel Owens has made the transition to the world of cattle farming over the last couple of years - TOM WREN
Nigel Owens has made the transition to the world of cattle farming over the last couple of years - TOM WREN

For Nigel Owens, rugby has not simply been his life – it saved his life. The sport’s most celebrated referee understands the debt he owes the game, which was a source of hope in his darkest moments wrestling with his sexuality, but he is now ready to step away from it.

Owens has confirmed he is to retire from the international scene at the end of the season after 35 years of officiating, and this Saturday’s match between France and Italy – his 100th international Test appointment – could also be his last.

The 49-year-old has yet to receive any indication if he will be involved in the 2021 Six Nations. World Rugby is attempting to bring through a new generation of referees in time for the 2023 World Cup in France. A decision is expected next month.

His transition to the world of cattle farming over the past couple of years – he has recently bought a 90-acre holding at Pontyberem near Llanelli – has helped prepare him for life away from the game, but he would hope to go out with more fanfare next year. He still has a contract with the Welsh Rugby Union until June 2022 and will be opening discussions over moving into a coaching role if he is not required to officiate club games.

“I will be very proud to achieve that milestone this weekend,” says Owens. “I never thought I would keep going to get 100 Tests. From what I am told, I am still refereeing at the top of my game. It is not a case of hanging around for an extra game and overstaying your welcome. I am still enjoying it and still performing, so there is a sense of that as well.

“There is also a sense that things are coming to an end. This season will be my last at Test level, and probably professionally as well. It will be. I can understand that if I am not going to be around for the World Cup in three years’ time, they are not going to pick me now.

“I will savour the moment. You have to enjoy every day as if it is the last because one day you will be right. I am going to enjoy this game because one day it is going to be my last, and this could be it. I would be disappointed if it was.”

Owens insists he still has the same enthusiasm for the game as he did when he made his international debut officiating Portugal’s victory over Georgia in February 2003. His fitness has helped, too. Only twice in 34 years has he had to pull out of a game because of injury.

 “I loved being at Twickenham for England versus Georgia,” he added. “Some people asked me how I can get excited about doing a game like that after all these years. But it is a Test match. It will mean as much to the players as any other game. The reason why I have carried on for so long is that I still love the game.”

Owens' connection with the game runs deep. When he was 24, and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, he left a suicide note for his parents before leaving his family home in the village of Mynyddcerrig in Carmarthenshire, intent on ending his life, having taken an overdose. He fell into a deep coma and would have died had he not been found by a police helicopter.

Nigel Owens in numbers
Nigel Owens in numbers

Owens eventually came out as gay in 2007, and said the positive reaction he received from the sport - from world-class players to grass-roots clubs - changed his life. Yet he also revealed that even during his dark, troubled times, refereeing was his solace.

“Rugby and the people within rugby saved my life,” he adds. “That is why I will always owe more to rugby and the people within rugby will ever owe to me. I got through those difficult times because of rugby. Being accepted by some of the greatest players in the world who said, ‘Well done, we are proud of you because of who you are, it doesn’t matter to us.’ That helped me in coming out and it saved my life, there is no doubt about it."

He still remembers interrupting the wedding anniversary meal of Bob Yeman, his referees’ manager, to tell him his news. The tears were flowing so freely he could barely get the words out. “I was coming out to my parents and I needed to find out if I would have to give up refereeing. He actually cancelled his dinner reservation that night to speak to me.

“Even in the difficult times before coming out, when I attempted suicide and was really in a bad place, going out to referee a game on a Saturday afternoon or doing my school team when I was working then on a Wednesday afternoon, that was when I felt safe. For those 80 minutes out on the field, I was away from all my troubles. I was doing something that I loved and no-one would judge me apart from the decisions I made on the pitch. I used to do up to eight games a week. When I was in that dark, dark, place I would look forward to refereeing a game.

“That saved me. If I hadn’t had that refereeing and that rugby, there is no doubt that I wouldn’t be here today.”

Owens will be remembered as one of the game’s great communicators, and many of his one-liners during matches have become hits on social media. He had the gift of the gab since childhood, and first performed as a stand-up comedian at his local working men’s club in Mynyddcerrig at the age of 14.

Nigel Owens' top five quips
Nigel Owens' top five quips

He called the same club an hour after refereeing the 2015 World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia, the match he regards as his stand-out moment.

“I hadn’t rung the working men’s club for over 20 years but I remembered the number off by heart. One of the committee members came to the phone and I said, ‘It's Nigel here, is Daddy there?’

“He shouted to my father: 'Geraint, Nigel is on the phone,’ and the whole club erupted. I was in floods of tears at the other end. But when my father came on the phone, the first thing he said to me was: ‘How the f--- did you miss that forward pass?’ He was referring to a pass by Dan Carter. It was the first thing he said and it brought me right back down to earth.”

The decision that he most regrets in his career was sending off Samoa full-back Paul Williams in their 13-5 pool defeat by South Africa at the 2011 World Cup, after the assistant referee had flagged for a punch. Reviews later showed Williams had been defending himself with an open palm.

The call he is most proud of came in the 2013 match against New Zealand in Dublin, Ireland were on course for a first ever victory against the All Blacks on what was Brian O’Driscoll’s last chance to beat them when Owens awarded a penalty against the Irish pack for going off their feet.

There were just 30 seconds remaining, but with Ireland leading 22-17, New Zealand launched a counter-attack from within their own 22, culminating in a try by Ryan Crotty to level the match. A further intervention by Owens then denied Ireland a draw when, after Aaron Cruden’s conversion had drifted wide, he ordered it to be retaken because several Ireland players had rushed out prematurely.

“Ireland had never beaten the All Blacks and there was a lot of hype and emotion around the game,” recalled Owens. “As a referee you have to detach yourself from that emotion because you are there to do a job. I suppose if I had been sitting at home watching that game then I would have been pleased for Ireland to beat a side that they had never beaten before. But when you are there, you can’t get involved in the emotion. You are there to do a job and not get hung up in that. 

Nigel Owens awards a penalty to England during the Autumn Nations Cup international rugby union match between England and Georgia  - AFP
Nigel Owens awards a penalty to England during the Autumn Nations Cup international rugby union match between England and Georgia - AFP

“I looked back and thought I had done the right thing. If I had come off that field and said: ‘Nigel, you got hung up on the emotion and didn’t make the right decision there’ I would have probably packed up refereeing and I wouldn’t have gone on to referee a World Cup final.

“I hear some referees talking now about wanting to stay out of the limelight and avoid controversy and not to decide the outcome of a game.

“I say, ‘Yes, every referee wants to stay below the radar but if you do because you made the right decision, then good. But if you are aiming to stay below the radar and not put yourself in the headlines because you have opted not to make the right decision then you are not doing your job.’”  

It is that passion, wit and courage that will be sorely missed. Such has been his commitment to the game that he deserves a greater send-off than an empty stadium in Paris on Saturday night. 

His first Six Nations match was England’s victory over Italy at Twickenham in 2007 and it would represent the perfect send-off if he was able to take charge of the same fixture in February, when supporters could be allowed back into stadiums - albeit in reduced numbers - to salute him. Owens has earned that, at least.