Often in sport, the man or woman in the middle, whether referee, umpire or arbiter, does not get the plaudits he or she deserves for their own contribution.
There are legitimate reasons for this – football fans, for example, do not tend to turn up to home games to catch a glimpse of Andre Marriner refereeing proceedings and most spectators of any sport will have a side they cheer on. However, sometimes it’s important to appreciate the quality of the individual in the middle, and few are more deserving of such appreciation than rugby referee Nigel Owens.
Owens began refereeing rugby union when 16-years-old in school after a teacher suggested he take up refereeing rather than be a player, following missing a match-winning conversion in one game. It would be fair to say the Welshman who grew up in the village of Mynyddcerrig, Camarthenshire, has never looked back since. He has refereed at the highest levels of European rugby since 2001 and is now the most experienced international test rugby referee ever. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, Nigel Owens was bestowed the honour of refereeing the final. Further capping this year, he was named as World Rugby‘s referee of the year.
Owens brings to the field his own unique personality when schooling miscreant rugby players or managing confusing instructions from assistant officials with a whole host of memorable quips and incidents. In fact, no referee compares to Owens on the number of compilation videos of his best and funniest moments on YouTube, while he even has his own catchphrase, ‘This is not soccer’. My personal favourite moments of Owens as a referee are when he jokingly yellow carded a ballboy for accidentally hitting him in the back with a ball and in another game responding to a particularly wonky line-out throw, quipping: ‘I’m straighter than that one’.
Nigel Owens became the first high-profile rugby figure to be openly gay in 2007. In a comment piece for The Independent in 2015 Owens said that he received ‘a lot of support’ and having disclosed his sexuality ‘it felt like being born again’. He has admitted that when coming to terms with his sexuality he consulted a doctor about chemical castration and also revealed that the pressure of both keeping secret and coming to terms with his sexuality led to a near-fatal suicide attempt in 1996. Owens has even said that the pressure of refereeing the 2015 Rugby World Cup final ‘was nothing compared to the challenge of accepting who I was’.
Not only has Owens spoken frankly about his experiences as a gay man, but he has also more recently promoted awareness of eating disorders. Owens has spoken of his experiences with bulimia and subsequent steroid addiction when attempting to overcome the disorder.
When Nigel Owens retires from refereeing international matches in 2019, world rugby will owe him a tremendous debt, not only for his services as a match official but also as a gay figurehead in the sport.
Homophobia still exists in rugby (I will leave the reader to research past remarks made by current Australian international Israel Folau), as it does in society. Yet the wonderful coordinated response following the horrific homophobic-incited physical attack in Cardiff on former Welsh international Gareth Thomas shows how far things have changed since Owens, with trepidation, became openly gay in 2007. Match officials and players across the rugby world wore rainbow laces in the final Autumn International test matches of 2018 to stand in solidarity with Thomas. It showcased rugby union, and sport in general, at its best.