Rugby World Cup
Sharp wit and shrewd eye carried Owens from the Valleys to his Everest
John Griffiths
October 29, 2015
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Think of the best international matches since the last Rugby World Cup in 2011.

The Johannesburg thriller between South Africa and New Zealand in 2013, which was hailed as the greatest game ever? That nail-biter in Mendoza last year, when Argentina emerged as a world rugby power by beating Australia and securing their first Rugby Championship win? Or perhaps England's titanic 55-35 defeat of France at Twickenham earlier this year when the Six Nations title was on the line?

The common denominator running through those stand-out Tests is Welsh referee Nigel Owens who, on Saturday, takes control of the Rugby World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at Twickenham, the pinnacle of a tournament where, in the words of its World Rugby organisers, "the high quality of officiating has been a feature."

There can be no better choice than the man from Mynydd Cerrig in Carmarthenshire, the senior international referee on the circuit with 67 Tests under his belt including 26 in the Six Nations, Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship. Players respect his instinct to let a game flow, warm to his strong communication skills and above all appreciate his consistency ruling the breakdown, rugby's greyest area.

"This is a huge honour and a privilege for me. I am humbled to have been chosen to referee the Rugby World Cup final," he said on hearing of his appointment earlier this week.

"This is my third World Cup and I think it has been the best. It has been inspirational. The quality of rugby on display has been incredible in front of packed venues and so to be given the opportunity to referee the final match between the best two teams in the tournament is an amazing honour."

Referee Nigel Owens
Referee Nigel Owens© Stu Forster/Getty Images

It used to be said that good referees were seen but never heard, but the maxim no longer applies to the international game. Today, crowds see replays of critical moments on big screens and expect to hear the referee's decisions and explanations through ref-link, while millions more watch on television.

In addition, at this World Cup the interactions between referee and his TMO have become more important. Nigel Owens has perfectly mastered the developing technology without losing any of the on-field rapport he enjoys with the players.

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He also brings a sharp wit to his refereeing skills, injecting a touch of humour that is appreciated by all engaged in the turbulence of a fast-moving contact sport.

One of his own favourite stories involves a spur-of-the-moment riposte to Dwayne Peel, the former Scarlets and Wales scrum-half who lived in the same west Wales village as Owens and later played for Sale. The two were the only Welsh-speakers on the field during a big match when the following exchange -- loosely translated from Welsh -- took place as a set-scrum formed:

Owens: "Now make sure that ball goes down the middle of the tunnel this time, Dwayne. Not behind your second-row's feet."

Peel: "Nige -- come on. We're the only two lads from Pontyberem on this field."

Owens: "Look here Peel, put the ball into the middle or I'll be the only Pontyberem lad on this bloody field."

 
"Players respect his instinct to let a game flow, his strong communication skills and his consistency ruling the breakdown, rugby's greyest area" John Griffiths on Nigel Owens
 

There have been some moments in this Rugby World Cup when his classic quips have defused potential conflicts. In the Tonga-Georgia pool match at Kingsholm he reduced Davit Zirakashvili to an apologetic smile after the Georgian prop claimed he didn't understand one of the Welshman's front-row decisions. "How many times have I refereed you?" enquired Owens. "Don't say you don't understand me."

A couple of weeks later Scotland's Stuart Hogg was given a flea in the ear when he tried to milk a tackle in the game against South Africa at St James's Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club.

Hogg's Hollywood audition was dismissed by Owens. "There was nothing wrong [with the tackle]. If you want to dive like that again, come back in two weeks' time to play, not today. So watch it."

Saturday's final is the ultimate accolade for the Welshman, the Everest of a Himalayan refereeing career that began in the foothills of the old West Wales Leagues nearly 30 years ago when he was a teenager.

According to Owens, he played fullback at school for a side that lost every match that season. He even missed a potential match-winning conversion in their final game, prompting his long-suffering games-master to tell him in no uncertain terms to forget about playing and take up refereeing instead. So he did.

Referee Nigel Owens of Wales
Referee Nigel Owens of Wales© Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Owens was so young when he started that he didn't even have a driving licence. West Wales bus timetables were every bit as essential as his copy of the Laws of the Game in preparation for his weekend assignments across the valleys, but progress was rapid. Fast-tracked by the Welsh Rugby Union, he became a full-time referee by the age of 30 and honours quickly followed.

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He is now his country's most-capped international referee, the latest leading Welsh whistler in a line that includes such distinguished former officials as Albert Freethy, Tommy Vile, Ivor David, Gwynne Walters, Meirion Joseph, Clive Norling and his own refereeing mentor Derek Bevan, the only other Welshman who has controlled a Rugby World Cup final -- in 1991, also at Twickenham.

Saturday's game will be his 13th in charge at the ground, including two European Finals, and match-day preparations will no doubt follow his usual routine. He will calm any pre-match jitters by listening to his favourite hymn Mor fawr wyt ti (How Great Thou Art) and during the anthems there will be a heavenward glance to spare a quiet thought for his late mum, Mair, who died aged 63 from cancer in 2009 and was an inspiration to him through difficult personal times in his early adult life.

Aussie and Kiwi supporters will then join the millions of neutrals worldwide who have enjoyed this wonderful England 2015 tournament to wish him well for the most important match of his career.

Enjoy the day, Nigel.

© John Griffiths

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