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'I'm quite confident I could still perform at the highest standard'

By Liam Heagney
Referee Nigel Owens watches the scrum during the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

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Nigel Owens hasn’t got a minute to waste in his new career on the farm, looking after 90 acres of his own land and renting 25 more. As soon as the much-admired ex-professional referee finished his 25-minute breakfast time Zoom with RugbyPass, he was off on an important recce. “There are about 60 pedigree Herefords here and one is due to calve. I’m going to have to go quickly and check this one in a minute,” he said at the end of a conversation that illustrated he is still very much a voice of reason regarding rugby refereeing.


Owens still does some work for the WRU, nurturing their latest phalanx of young referees, while he is also in great demand on the media circuit. The whistle hasn’t been completely retired either. Local grassroots games, charity matches, kids fixtures – they have all been on his busy calendar in the last while. 

Curiously, he even suggests he’d still have what it takes to perform at the highest refereeing level even though he is more than content his daily life now centres around Pontyberem, near Carmarthen in west Wales, rather than flying around the world to the next big rugby gig. 

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“The timing was right,” he said about stepping away after becoming a Test game centurion 16 months ago. “I’d been doing it at international level for nearly 20 years, four World Cups, a lot of travelling and it was the right time. The key thing is I’d other stuff I wanted to do.

“I wanted to be home more, wanted to spend time with family and friends because when you’re refereeing it’s a huge commitment, you’re away a lot. I’d the farm I wanted to set up as well which was always a dream as a young boy.

“Although I would have liked to have finished off in the 2021 Six Nations, it wasn’t to be but it was easy (to let it go). A lot of referees have found it very, very difficult but it came at the right time for me and the situation with covid helped because there wasn’t a lot of rugby going so there wasn’t anything there for you to miss.


“It was the right timing naturally which is very difficult to get, to finish at the top of your game when I know I still can perform at the top of my game. I’m quite confident if I got back out training for the next couple of weeks I could referee a game and still perform at the highest standard – I know I can do that. But there are other things in life I want to do.”

One of those things was punditry during the recent 2022 Six Nations on behalf of William Hill, the bookmakers. His 15 match tips were nearly all on the money, his only setback coming when the Welsh were ambushed by the Azzurri. “I was more confident than anything that Wales would beat Italy in Cardiff and that is the one that let me down. I’d them all right and was quite confident going into the last weekend that I was going to get them all right.”

Owens has several different perspectives on the Six Nations, everything from his support for under-performing Wales, his enthusiasm for the French revival, his general verdict on refereeing standards, the concussion debate, and what laws need some polish to make rugby a healthier spectacle than it currently is. We’ll start with his home country and Owens’ relief he wasn’t at the Principality last weekend.

“I watched it at home and I’m glad I did,” he said about Wales’ implosion. “Everybody is disappointed. It’s not just the fact that you lost, it’s been a disappointing Six Nations campaign and just the way we played, we played awful in the last game and in the first game out in Ireland. We played well against Scotland and beat them and should have beaten France, and then maybe another five minutes at Twickenham we would have beaten England. 


“There were performances where people were starting to think, ‘Hang on, we’re improving as the tournament gets on’. But then it was a step back. All credit to Italy, they deserved the win and it was nice to see a team play like that, running the ball from their own line, and that winning try shows you can still play at the top end of the game even though you’re not the biggest of players, that it is still a game for all shapes and sizes.”

Stade de France, meanwhile, was the venue Owens named as the most hostile during his refereeing career and what he saw this season with France crowned Six Nations champions for the first time since 2010 has whetted the appetite for the French-hosted World Cup 2023. “I loved to referee in Paris when the atmosphere is electric and France are on top of their game, but I have also been there when France played pretty poor and that atmosphere changes drastically. 

“On the weekend you could see the country were behind them and the atmosphere, it’s a very, very hostile place to go because if the French don’t like the decision you make they let you know about it. But they have brought that little bit of excitement back. It’s always a pleasure to see France play the traditional French way and that has been missing for the last sort of ten years. But now it’s back, the flair, the way they are playing, it really is exciting. It adds to the game and the occasion and I don’t think anybody begrudged them winning.”

Owens was clued into the game within the game over the course of the championship, the competition amongst the referees to paint themselves in the best light with the next World Cup just 18 months away. “There were 15 referees due to referee in the Six Nations,” he explained. “Two didn’t make it because of covid restrictions in New Zealand and there is only twelve going to go to the World Cup as referees, so it’s a big challenge for them to perform. 

“This Six Nations was pivotal because if you perform well in it, it puts you in a good position to get the big Rugby Championship games coming up and then leading into next year’s Six Nations. If you’re doing those big games you’re going into the World Cup on form, but if you didn’t perform well in this Six Nations it can put you on the back foot a bit. It’s just like the players, you learn a lot about the referees and it was a pivotal moment for refereeing.”

Owens didn’t single out any one referee – good or bad – during his RugbyPass interview. It’s not his style. “I didn’t agree to do some commentary and Whistle Watch to criticise referees. What I was hoping to do was that by explaining decisions it would help people to understand. With social media, anybody can criticise the referee without really understanding what it is like to be a referee and what it is like to make those decisions under big pressure.” 

His Six Nations report card has given the general thumbs up to the refereeing class of 2022 – but he insisted fans’ attitudes must change regarding criticism of red cards. “The referees can be pretty pleased overall,” he reckoned. “We’re not talking about refereeing decisions costing teams games. 

“The red card decision was a correct one (England vs Ireland), but if that had been a wrong decision we would have been talking about refereeing controversies. We weren’t, so the referees can be pretty happy. People are talking about the games rather than the refereeing which is always a good sign.”

Some fallout from the red card brandished to England’s Charlie Ewels after 82 seconds bemoaned that it had ruined the game, but Owens has no truck with that debate. “People need to stop thinking that red cards ruin games because a red card is given for a reason when clearly there is an act of foul play or recklessness, and if the referee gives a correct red card then it’s irrelevant whether it ruins the game or not. 

“It didn’t in this instance [Ewels], it probably added to the game. People say, ‘It’s a bit of an unlucky red card’. Well, if it’s an unlucky red card then it shouldn’t be a red card. A red card is nailed on and that red card was nailed on. You can say the player didn’t try to do it – that is irrelevant. 

“If you’re driving down the road doing 50 miles an hour in a 30-mile speed limit and you knock somebody over, the fact that you didn’t try to knock them over is irrelevant. You were doing something you shouldn’t have been doing. If we are at a stage where we are discussing red cards as being ‘oh that’s unlucky, that’s accidental’, then it shouldn’t be a red card, end of story. 

“This was a nailed-on red card, it didn’t ruin the game and people talking about this orange card, if you’re going to have a player sent off and in 20 minutes you get another player coming on instead of him, that isn’t going to change player behaviour. It isn’t going to make coaches really hit home to players you have to change tackle techniques because if you’re going to be back up to 15 men for 60 minutes compared to being down to 14 men for 80, I don’t think that is enough of a deterrent for player behaviour. 

“So a red card is a red card for a reason and you shouldn’t be replaced because the Irish player [James Ryan] left the field and didn’t play the following weekend. He was out of the tournament so player safety is paramount. Yes, the red card was a big call at the beginning of the game but the referee was 100 per cent correct.”

Let’s talk concussion next, a topic that got plenty of airplay during the tournament. It was Friday, a few days after Owens interviewed with RugbyPass, when a Six Nations investigation admitted it was an error to allow Tomas Francis back onto the field against England. “You have got to remember you’re in a sport where there is going to be head collisions. That’s the nature of the game so what we need to do is make the sport as safe as we possibly can. 

“There are protocols to deal with situations like this. They are from the soundest medical experience and advice of what those protocols are and what coaches, medics, players need to follow for player safety. The game is doing all it can to make it as safe as it possibly came. We saw Tomos Williams quite rightly removed from the game in Cardiff, he wasn’t even given a HIA. 

“I have seen some people say, ‘Well, if you go off for a head injury assessment you shouldn’t come back on’. Well, there is stuff in place from medical advice on what is safe and what is not so as long as everything is followed within that then I don’t have an issue with it. 

“Now if more evidence comes out that the protocol or the rules need to be stringent, need to be stricter on the return to play, then that is something they will look at and put in place. But as long as everything is followed by the medical advice then to me that is what we need to do.”

Elsewhere, Owens is worried about the potential long-term consequences for rugby if the currency of the scrum is devalued. “At the moment it has not been the important part of the game it should be and that takes away from the game for all shapes and sizes. Some players if they haven’t got the prowess to scrummage then what other part are they going to play in the game? 

“We are just going to be looking at a rugby league type of game where everybody is pretty much the same physique. We need to better scrummaging, need to see scrums comes back as a potent attack and referees need to be strong on refereeing the scrum… overall the Six Nations scrums have been very disappointing.”

The last word from Owens goes to the goal-line dropout and why he isn’t a fan. “You’re actually rewarding defence rather than attack,” he said about how defending teams now get the ball to kick clear rather than the attacking side getting a five-metre scrum for a hold-up over the line. “In the past, the benefit of the doubt would go with the attack because it encouraged the attack in a game rather than a defence. 

“And I’m also seeing a little more kicking creeping in where teams are kicking long. Instead of dropping out from the 22 to restart you’re now dropping out from your own goal-line, the other team catches the ball on halfway and they kick it back, and we don’t see any quick dropouts taken anymore. That was a skill in itself, an exciting part of the game, and you don’t see dropout 22s now where teams are competing for the ball. 

“In the past when you dropped out a 22 your team’s forwards would compete for the ball and you could win it back. You don’t have that with the goal-line dropout anymore. It’s just a kick long now and the opposition team kicks it back. In the beginning, I thought it was a good idea, that this could open up the game, but I’m just not seeing it. It hasn’t helped the game and it’s de-powering the scrum as well (with fewer five-metre scrums). I don’t think that law is working.”

  • Nigel Owens was speaking to Rugby Pass in conjunction with William Hill.


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