Nigel Owens on the pressure of refereeing the Rugby World Cup - and his struggle with his sexuality
Owens is the first referee to come out as gay — now he's set to take charge of the World Cup final
This Saturday, Nigel Owens will realise his ambition to referee a Rugby World Cup final. Radio Times met the rugby ref just before the start of the tournament to talk about his rise to the top after coming back from the brink of suicide in 1996. Here is the remarkable interview in full.
In the small hours of an April night in 1996, 24-year-old rugby referee Nigel Owens slipped out of his parents’ house in the Welsh village of Mynyddcerrig, Dyfed, climbed a nearby mountain and tried to kill himself with an overdose of paracetamol washed down with a bottle of whisky. He was secretly gay, hooked on body-building steroids, bulimic and depressed. He was found, comatose, by a police helicopter later that morning and airlifted to a hospital in Carmarthen.
“The doctor said another 20 minutes and it would have been too late,” Owens recalls now, though he still finds it hard to talk about his ordeal. He continued to struggle with his homosexuality for several more years, but in 2007 took another dramatic step. He came out – the first person in the intensely physical, masculine world of professional rugby to do so. He believed it would end his career: “I had two options. I could carry on living a lie, or I could come out and tell people who I am and give up refereeing.”
But far from being forced out of the game, Owens has flourished. Now 44, he is one of just 12 referees chosen to officiate at the Rugby World Cup – his first match is Tonga v Georgia on Saturday – and he is a leading contender to take charge of the final at Twickenham on 31 October. That would be “a huge honour... a final is the pinnacle of any ref’s career,” he acknowledges. Were he to be awarded that ultimate accolade, it would be a direct consequence of his decision to come out – not in spite of it. Owens took up refereeing at 16 after bungling a crucial conversion in a school game.
In one of his first matches a team of policemen walked off the field, accusing him of bias. But the array of trophies, medals, framed shirts and international caps – yes, referees also win caps – that adorn his well-appointed bungalow near Mynyddcerrig testify to his subsequent success. So does the white BMW with its personalised numberplate – NI6 REF – that sits outside.
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He does not shirk the really tough decisions on the field. Last March, before 80,000 roaring fans at Twickenham, he denied England the Six Nations title when he penalised their scrum as it crossed the try line in the last move of the game. In 2013 he denied Ireland a historic first victory over New Zealand by allowing the All Blacks to retake a missed conversion in the final seconds because two Irish players had charged early. “Pretty much everyone in the world who was watching wanted Ireland to win, but as referee you have to do what’s right,” he says.
He demands respect from players, scolding them like a headmaster for misconduct, and deplores the way professional footballers jostle and argue with referees. “It’s unacceptable behaviour,” he says. “I’d love to give refereeing football a go. I’m afraid they’d be down to five-aside before half-time.” He is equally scathing about the way some football managers abuse referees. “If you had coaches in rugby having a go at referees like Jose Mourinho and some others do, they’d be dealt with more firmly.” He copes well with what he describes as the “massive” pressure on referees – not just on the pitch.
After sending off Samoa’s full back Paul Williams in a 2011 World Cup game against South Africa, he even received death threats. Referees are seldom praised if they do well, but they’re vilified if they make errors. “They say it’s the most hated job after traffic wardens,” he says. “People have always had their opinions on referees’ decisions, but now they voice them in social media. The biggest challenge is not to let that get to you.” He tries to keep games flowing – “the most difficult thing is knowing when not to blow the whistle”. He often addresses players by their first names. An occasional stand-up comic when not refereeing, Owens also has a nice line in humour, which helps to defuse tension on the pitch.
“I don’t think we’ve met before, but I’m the referee,” he told one errant player. “I’m straighter than that one,” he quipped after a particularly crooked throw-in during a game. But it was only after acknowledging his homosexuality that Owens became a really outstanding referee. It was a far more frightening step than taking charge of a top rugby match, but “my life changed, my refereeing changed and it took off from there,” he says. “Refereeing requires one thing more than anything else and that’s complete concentration for 80 minutes. Obviously if something is playing on your mind you are going to lapse in and out of concentration... A happy referee is a good referee.”
In the eight years since, he has not had a single adverse reaction from the players. Former British Lion Barry Williams told him the day after he came out: “All the players fully support you and respect you for what you’ve done.” There is inevitably some banter, but Owens gives as good as he gets. When he walked into the Ospreys’ changing room before one game, then team captain Ryan Jones joked about putting some clothes on before tossing up. “It’s all right, you’re not my type,” Owens shot back. Everyone laughed.
There have been occasional incidents: two spectators were banned from Twickenham and fined for shouting homophobic abuse at him last year. But rugby has shown the way, he says. Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh captain, came out in 2009. Sam Stanley, an England Rugby Sevens player, came out last month. The hulking (heterosexual) England forward James Haskell has posed half-naked for the latest edition of Gay Times magazine.
Owens believes there are many more gay rugby players and it is only their reluctance to admit their homosexuality to themselves that’s holding them back: “You can’t blame rugby and say it’s not safe [to come out]. It is safe. That’s been proven.” His only regret is that he didn’t come out earlier to spare his parents the “hell” of his suicide attempt. “For what I put my family and friends through, I will never forgive myself.”
Owens has become something of a role model, uses his celebrity to combat homophobia, and receives hundreds of messages from people struggling with their sexuality. He is presently offering advice to three rugby players, and one football referee. But even Owens hesitates when asked if he would have dared to come out had he been a football official. “I don’t know,” he replies. “There’s a bigger minority with a louder voice in football, which would’ve made it more difficult.” Owens, who has a partner and at last is comfortable in his own skin, is now in pole position to referee the World Cup final, having officiated at more than 60 internationals. He trains five or six times a week to maintain the required level of fitness – he must be able to run 40 metres in under 5.8 seconds.
He knows all the top players, who may try to bend the rules and how – even in rugby there is some cheating, he admits, citing a growing propensity to “dive” as an example. He has ready his lucky Superman boxer shorts – given to him by three young cousins, and that he wears for every game – and on his iPod is the hymn How Great Thou Art, which he listens to just before going down the tunnel. For a gay referee to be given the World Cup final would be a milestone, and would reflect well on the sport, but the decision will depend on his performances in the tournament’s earlier stages.
Each will be assessed at every game, and will also have to provide a self-assessment after watching the match video. “Every decision will be scrutinised, and in a World Cup the pressure and scrutiny will increase tenfold,” Owens says. He claims he would be content simply to be awarded a quarter-final, but in truth there is only one circumstance when he would not be disappointed if someone else got the final: if his own beloved Wales makes it to Twickenham. “There would be nobody happier if I was sitting in the stands watching Wales lift the Webb Ellis trophy,” he insists.