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'Now that's what I call a genuine hard man': Nigel Owens picks the hardest player he had ever come across

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Veteran referee Nigel Owens has chosen the hardest rugby player he has ever come across on the pitch – two-time All Blacks World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw. The official from Wales, who is next month set to become the first referee to take charge of 100 Test matches, has written the foreword to Hard Men of Rugby, the newly published Y Lolfa book written by Luke Upton. 

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Twenty hard as nails icons of the sport such as Wayne Shelford, Jerry Collins, Bakkies Botha, Jacques Burger, Martin Johnson and Sebastien Chabal feature in the book along with other former players like Martin Johnson, Trevor Brennan, Weary Dunlop, Bobby Windsor, Tomas Lavanini, Brian Lima and Norm Hadley.

There is no chapter dedicated to McCaw, the soon-to-be 40-year-old who enjoyed a 148-Test cap career from 2001 to 2015, an appearances record that was equalled last Saturday by Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones – but Owens made sure in the book’s introduction that the influence of the New Zealander didn’t go unmentioned.

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The referee wrote: “A popular question put to me is, who is the hardest player I’ve ever across on the pitch? Well, many of the players included in this book would be very high up on my list but when it comes to the hardest of all, I’m sorry Luke, it’s not one of your suggestions. Though I can see one of your interviewees has agreed with me… it’s Richie McCaw.  

Capped 148 times by New Zealand, despite playing in the most attritional of positions, where every game he would be throwing himself into harm’s way, perhaps by locking himself over possession and soaking up the attention of immensely powerful forwards who would do everything they could wipe him off the ball. Now that’s what I call a genuine hard man!”

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Owens addressed another question he is often asked: whether the modern game has gone soft? “I always answer the same – absolutely not! The game is cleaner than it was, but that does not make it soft. Some see the rugby of the 1970s of the 1980s as ‘the good old days’, but were those days really that good if the anecdotes about the dark deeds, the players getting booted at the bottom rucks, punches, stamps and headbutts were all true?

“Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the kind of game I would want to be part of and just because that stuff has been rooted out does not means rugby is soft. The pace of the game has picked up dramatically since I first picked up my whistle and so has the intensity and the time the ball is in play for. 

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“The hits today are thunderous, put in by blokes who are built like tanks. Yet I regularly see people picking themselves up off the floor and resuming play after being smashed square-on. The impact of the collisions can be tremendous and the courage shown in every game never ceases to amaze me.” 

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