Veteran referee Nigel Owens has revealed he was threatened with the 2019 World Cup selection axe by Alain Rolland, the World Rugby 15s high performance match officials manager who is quitting that role at the end of this month.  

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Having refereed the 2015 World Cup final, Owens was confidently looking ahead to gaining selection to officiate at his fourth finals when he was given a severe warning that he might not be selected for Japan 2019 as his performances were deemed to be not up to scratch. 

Rolland, the 2011 World Cup final referee who gained notoriety in Wales for sending off Sam Warburton in the semi-finals that year versus France, risked a further avalanche of criticism if he followed through on his threat to jettison the hugely popular Owens. 

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However, the matter never came to a head as Owens agreed with Rolland that he had on occasion let his standards slip and would work hard to rectify those failings ahead of the finals in Japan, a tournament where he went on to take charge of the classic New Zealand vs England semi-final. 

Writing in his weekly walesonline.com column, Owens revealed how Rolland’s warning was as welcome as the criticism he had received in 2014 from Joel Jutge, the previous referees manager. That rebuke six years ago became the catalyst for improved consistency that resulted in Owens being appointed for the 2015 final between New Zealand and Australia. 

“Let me let you into another little secret,” wrote Owens, who was paying tribute in his column to Rolland’s work over the years. “Ahead of the appointments for last year’s World Cup, Alain pulled me to one side and told me a couple of my more recent performances were not up to my usual standard. 

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“And he was right. ‘Nige, you need to get back to your best. I’m not going to recommend you for the World Cup unless I’m convinced you’re still good enough to do knockout games’.

“Basically, he was saying he could take a more inexperienced official to referee the pool matches if necessary so they could get experience ahead of the 2023 tournament. He expected more from a senior figure like me. This was to be my fourth World Cup and I certainly wasn’t going there just to referee a couple of pool games.

“I told Alain that he didn’t actually need to tell me if I was good enough or not, I would know if I had started to consistently slip below the high standards I set and expect of myself. But I suppose every one of us needs that pep talk at some stage, whatever job we do. And this was my kick up the backside again – just like after that 2014 game. 

“I resolved there and then to get back to my previous level and to make it as difficult as possible for Alain and his selection team not only to leave me out of the knockout games but also not to consider me for the final itself, even though I had done it previously.

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“I knuckled down, ended up getting the big semi-final between New Zealand and England – which some pundits were saying was the best match at the tournament. It meant I was also one of the names on a piece of paper of the referees who could potentially do the final.

“Jerome Garces quite rightly was chosen and performed very well, as we expected from such a capable official. He has been one of the top referees in the game for a few seasons, with Wayne Barnes and Jaco Peyper, and I felt if someone else was good enough, they deserved to get the final before anyone does it a second time. Jerome was deserving of it, I was so pleased for him.”

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