There are few professional sports in the world which are more difficult to officiate than rugby union.
The lengthy and complex law book, the ability for rules to be bent and interpreted in different ways and an increasing attempt by teams to discover and implement loopholes in the system means that referees not only have to be switched on 100% throughout 80 minutes but they constantly have to adapt and be aware of growing trends in the game.
Nigel Owens, who is the current record holder for most Test matches refereed, has seen the game change dramatically since the time he first began taking charge of matches at the tender age of 16 and when he first became a professional referee in 2001.
Since Owens first took up the whistle, he has achieved what any burgeoning young referee could hope to achieve in their career; PRO14 finals, European Cup finals and the World Cup final in 2015 – all of these superb accomplishments, yet he admits that he still enjoys a regular season PRO14 clash as much as any of the bigger ones which have come before.
“I’ve refereed every fixture you could think of, I’ve refereed six European Cup finals, four PRO14 finals, World Cup finals,” Owens said at the launch of the Union Cup, Europe’s biggest LGBT+ inclusive rugby tournament.
“There is nothing else to achieve if I was refereeing to achieve something, which I’m not. I’m refereeing because I love the game and I enjoy the game so much. I enjoyed the game on Saturday night at the RDS which was a brilliant game of rugby.”
The sport, Owens says with absolute conviction, saved his life and as long as he can continue to perform at the highest level, he will continue to do so.
“I just love refereeing because refereeing has been wonderful to me over the years. Rugby and refereeing has saved my life. I’m just enjoying it and putting a little back in. While I’m still enjoying it and able to perform at that level then I’ll continue to do so.”
“Some games are tougher than the others. Sometimes you go home and you look back at the game and you get things wrong or whatever reason you weren’t at your best and you feel a bit down but you pick yourself up and move onto the next game. I still love refereeing and I enjoy every minute of it still.”
Referees are often public enemy number one and it’s unlikely there will ever be a game where a spectator or supporter doesn’t have a gripe with a particular decision or outcome.
Most recently, Owens was in the firing line for aspects of his performance in Leinster’s clash with Benetton on Saturday night. Benetton’s final try which secured a draw saw an alleged block on James Lowe while there was also criticism aimed at the Welsh referee for an “unlucky” clearout from winger Fergus McFadden.
Owens admits that he has to be hard on himself in the aftermath of games as it is the only way he will learn and become a better referee.
“You’ve got to be hard on yourself because you can’t go out and referee a game and not make a mistake. It’s impossible to do that and when you make those mistakes, you’ve just got to learn from them. You’re always learning. Until I finish refereeing, I will always be learning. Obviously, the better you are, the better you perform, the less mistakes you make and the mistakes you make really don’t matter in the context of a game.”
So much has changed in the sport of rugby since the dawn of professionalism in the latter part of the 1990s. Rules have changed, the size of players has increased and the overall speed of the game has shot up. This brings its own challenges and Owens sees the introduction of technology as a help but also a hindrance.
Has the game of rugby become more difficult to referee in recent years?
“Yeah, I think it has in one sense, maybe one part of it that hasn’t is you’ve got technology now to help you make a decision which was humanly impossible for you to make otherwise. Did the ball touch the line? Did his foot touch the line before he scored the try? Without technology, you would never know.
“But also what technology has done has put more pressure on the referee, you’re scrutinised more, people expect you now to get every single decision right and it’s impossible to do that.”
The ability for everyone packed into the stadium to see replay footage also brings its own challenges.
“When you have big decisions or controversial decisions replayed on the big screen in the stadium and the crowd get on your back, it adds to the pressure of you on the field. It is a more difficult game to referee now as far as the pressure goes and technology has contributed a lot to that.
“The game is much faster now than it was 15, 20 years ago, so, even without the use of technology where you can’t use it for many occasions in the game, it has made it more difficult because of the speed of the game. In some sense, it’s easier than it was but on the most, it is a very difficult game to referee now with so much going on.”
The most important job for any referee, at any level, is a duty of care to the players on the pitch. Unfortunately, as the sport has evolved in recent years, we have seen the occurrence of serious injuries become more prevalent, be it head or lower limb related.
And one aspect of the game which has come in for criticism recently is the breakdown and the vulnerability of players when they go in for the poach. Owens acknowledges that the game is more physical now and that it is the responsibility of the referee to punish any incidents in this particular area.
“Rugby is a hugely physical game and it’s probably more physical now than it has ever been. The players are bigger, they’re stronger and some of the contacts are massive. All you can do as guardians of the game and as a referee of the game is referee the laws and make sure if there are instances of foul play, if a player goes in flying to a contact area leading with his shoulder and with no attempt to clear out, that you deal with them.
“And then most players then are sent off accordingly. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the game, there are going to be injuries, but as long as we referees make sure it’s safe as it possibly can be and we apply the laws and deal with the illegalities of the game. If a clear out is illegal then we as referees need to referee that and deal with it and get it out of the game. That’s all we can do.”
The safety of rugby will always be a major talking point, like any high-intensity contact sport but Owens does take comfort from the fact that previous dangerous trends in the game have, for the most part, been stamped out and he expects this to continue.
“The contact in the air was a concern because there was a lot of it and it’s dangerous, and still is dangerous, but we refereed it and it’s not much in the game now. And then we have the neck rolls and we refereed that and now there’s a big clampdown, and quite rightly so, with illegal contact with the head and high tackles. We’re doing all we can in addressing that.
“That’s for us as referees to apply the laws and we’re strict on it and that will help change the player’s behaviour so that players then will get tackle techniques better and eliminate the risk of illegal contact with the head area for the safety of everyone concerned.
“It’s just an ongoing process all the time really but I think the important message is that people can rest assured that everyone involved in the game is doing everything they can to ensure it is safe for people to play. We want to see the big hits, it’s part of the game, but we want to see the big hits that are legal and not the ones that are not.”
Nigel Owens was speaking at the launch of the Union Cup, Europe’s biggest LGBT+ inclusive rugby tournament which was launched at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium today. The two day festival of rugby will be held this June 8-9th at Dublin’s DCU with an expected 45 teams from 15 countries to participate. Union Cup Dublin will host a dedicated women’s tournament for the first time alongside the men’s.