As Welsh referee Nigel Owens approaches a career milestone, he discusses what law he’d change, dealing with backchat and his favourite match.
How does rugby get more people into refereeing?
We have a huge number of young referees in Wales but many drop off for various reasons. When I take referee courses, I tell young referees to do school and kids’ games because that’s where you learn. That’s where I started. But they are also difficult games because of parents. Governing bodies need to make sure parents and coaches, particularly at kids’ games, abide by the rules and values of rugby.
You need to be a certain type of person to be a referee because you will get abuse at all levels. It’s part of the theatre of it all and if spectators don’t like your decision they’ll tell you. But when it crosses that line from rugby humour to something personal and nasty, that is totally different.
The abuse of young referees by some parents and coaches is not acceptable, and if a spectator does cross the line they need to be dealt with in the proper way. Getting that out of the game would help with the retention of referees.
Also, a lot of young referees are very ambitious and start out to become the next Wayne Barnes or Nigel Owens. They want to be on telly every week and be a professional in the sport, but only a handful make it to the top. There are only 12 referees at the World Cup. I’ve seen some young referees get to a certain level and then, when they’re told that unless they show signs of improvement they won’t take the next step up, they pack it in. They’re in refereeing for the wrong reason.
Above all, you want to go into refereeing because you’re passionate about the sport and enjoy it as a hobby. If you’re good at it, you’ll naturally climb the refereeing ladder and go into refereeing as a job. Most of the referees who’ve reached the top didn’t get into it because they wanted to be an international referee but because they enjoyed it. They gave it a go at their local club on a Sunday morning and enjoyed it. Those referees will stay in the sport.
Do you think there’s too much backchat from players?
When I’m refereeing a game, I don’t see or feel that. If I did, I’d have a word with them and deal with it in an appropriate way. But it is creeping into the game: players questioning referees or wanting things checked by the TMO. I think it’s a refereeing issue in allowing it to happen. Some referees want to be pally and friendly with players, they want to be mates with players. It’s good to be friends with players and I’m good mates with plenty of players, but on that field they’re not your mates. You’re there to referee a game of rugby and deal with situations appropriately.
Calling people by their first name or saying, ‘Come here, mate’ opens up dialogue and players think they can have a go at you at any time. I’m more than open to dialogue on the field at the right time and place and in the right way. If players cross the line as to what’s acceptable, then I’ll deal with it. It’s something we, as referees, are in control of. When you’re refereeing, if you deal with those issues then players abide by the values of the game.
Should referees be more open about performances – answer media questions, explain decisions and so on?
It’s a tricky one. I wouldn’t have any issue doing it myself, I’d be more than happy to say, ‘Now that I’ve seen this again, I got the decision wrong.’ But it just opens up a can of worms. You get 99 decisions perfectly right and the one decision they want to talk about is the one you may have got wrong for whatever reason. When you’re talking about abusing the referee, if there’s that line of communication where he can say he was wrong, the abuse starts there and then.
What I would like to see is to have a referee as part of the punditry team, to explain decisions and the laws, to help educate the audience. You can say the decision is right or wrong, but you can do it in a way where you can explain the decision and the decision-making process so you’re helping people understand. If the referee hasn’t got it right, you can explain why he’s probably not got it right… ‘This is what he’s looking at and seeing from where he’s positioned, so there’s no way he’s seen this’.
How do you respond if you feel you’ve made a bad decision?
It does play on your mind. I can be driving home after a game thinking, ‘Did I get that right? How the hell did I get that wrong?’ I care about doing my best on the field for the players and if I get it wrong I’m disappointed not just for myself but for the players; I feel sometimes like I’ve let them down if I get a decision wrong.
I might have a restless night if I’ve got something wrong but the following day you dust yourself down, learn from it and move on to the next game. I’ve learned not to dwell on it.
If you could change one law, what would it be?
Substitutions. There are eight people on a bench, which is more than half a team. The second half of a game becomes stop-start because you’ve got substitutions being made, so I think changing that law would help the flow of the game.
It would free up a lot more players to play in other games too. For example, last year in Wales there were 16 teams in the Premiership with eight players on the bench. Sixteen times eight  is a huge amount of players sitting on the bench who could be playing for someone else, their local team. It would free up numbers for the community game lower down.
Also, if you have players who just have to play 40-50 minutes a game, they build up to a bigger size because they only need to last half the game. If you have to play 80 minutes, you’d naturally be carrying less weight into the game. To me, if you reduce the bulk and size of players, you reduce the impact in the sport, the collisions, and maybe then that would lessen the risk of injuries.
I’d reduce substitutions down from eight to four or five. And you could only use substitutions when there was an injury, not when a player was tired. Then once a player comes off with injury, they can’t go back on.
You’re in line to be the first person to referee 100 Tests. What would that mean to you?
I’ve never been one for refereeing just to get numbers. I referee because I enjoy it. If I’m good enough, whatever level I’m at, I’ll carry on refereeing.
I’m aware I’m only two away from 100 and it would be something special to get to there, a great honour and a privilege. I won’t carry on just for the sake of getting 100, though. Only if I’m still enjoying it and still good enough to do it at that level.
What’s next when you do retire?
Farming will take up a lot of my time. I’ve got a herd of Herefords. Then things I’ve not been able to do, like spending time with family and doing a lot of stuff at home. And I’ll be staying involved with the WRU in some capacity, coaching other referees and that side of things.
What was your favourite match to referee?
There are European Cup finals, the 2015 World Cup final, that epic South Africa-New Zealand game in 2013, England-France on Six Nations Super Saturday in 2015 – that was a wonderful game of rugby at Twickenham.
All of those have been very special. The one that really stands out for me, though, is a Pencoed U12s game. I did a Q&A at Pencoed with Dan Lydiate a couple of years ago and the coach of the U12s asked if I’d referee the cup final between Pencoed and Cwmbran, I think it was. They were the two unbeaten sides in Wales at that age group. It was on a Sunday in January and I said, ‘No problem’. He said he wouldn’t tell the kids so it was a surprise.
I was refereeing Leicester-Ulster at Welford Road on the Saturday night at 5.30pm in the European Cup. I rang Pencoed and said I’d drive back straight after the game but could they put the kick-off back an hour or so from 10.30am, so they moved it to midday.
The kids didn’t know I was coming, so to see their faces brighten up and jaws drop when I walked into the changing rooms was the best thing for me. Then their little winger said: ‘I hope you referee better today than last night!’ That’s what it’s all about.
Who has been the best captain to deal with?
I’ve worked with so many great captains – Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Chris Robshaw was always good, Rory Best. The one who probably stands out, because English is his second language as well, is Thierry Dusautoir. He’s an absolute gentleman as a player and a captain, on and off the field, win or lose. I always found him excellent; he was a pleasure and a delight to referee.
Who is the best player in the world right now?
I’d go for another Frenchman – Antoine Dupont. He’s a brilliant player and I think he’ll go on to be one of the stars of French and world rugby.
He’s totally different to the majority of scrum-halves. He’s quiet on the field, you never see him complaining or waving his arms in the air. He’ll say, ‘Mr Nigel, can I ask you something?’ He’s absolutely brilliant to referee.
*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.