Rarely does the man in the middle get a mention unless it's for the wrong reasons, but a good referee is vital to any decent game.
Rarely does the man in the middle get a mention unless it's for the wrong reasons, but a good referee is a vital ingredient to any decent game of rugby.
Three of the best Test matches in recent memory, South Africa v New Zealand and Ireland v New Zealand in 2013, and the France v England clash earlier this year had one striking similarity.
The man officiating was Welshman Nigel Owens, who this weekend makes his 50th Test appearance when he officiates in Dublin on Saturday.
Owens is a modest man, but one immensely driven by an innate sense of fair play and a willingness to contribute to the sport:
“I fell into refereeing almost by accident!” laughed the Welshman.
“I loved the game and helped out at my local club. When it dawned on me that I wasn't really good enough as a player, I tried my hand at officiating and the rest is history.
“The key thing is I found I enjoyed it. This is the single most important quality in a referee. You must accept you're always going to be somewhat alone in a team sport and even reffing the Under 11's you'll get comments from parents on the touch-line, but you accept this and develop the self-confidence and resolve to enjoy yourself. As with most things in life, the more fun you are having the better you tend to perform and refereeing is certainly no different in that respect.”
It's nine years since Owens first took charge of a Test, when he handled Ireland's outing against Japan in far away Osaka. On Saturday, he'll win his 50th Test cap in what will undoubtedly prove to be the 'Brian O'Driscoll show', but he is delighted at the symmetry of his first and his 50th Tests.
“I have always enjoyed refereeing Ireland and also players like Brian. Legend and great are bandied around like confetti in this modern era but Brian is exactly that,” he said.
“I have never had players or captains I prefer over others, but let's just say Brian has always been a pleasure to watch and to engage with. I'm delighted he's reached this landmark and the atmosphere will be thrilling for all involved and it will not be lost upon me.”
Indeed, Owens is very balanced when it comes to the nuts and bolts of his job. Whilst noting the requirement to set out the match parameters early on in the games, he emphasises the need for absolute consistency in his own decisioning and the need to bring players along that journey with him.
“Look, it's about setting your standards and then letting the players follow. You don't go hard for 20 minutes then let the requirements slip; that's the wrong approach. Put the benchmark up for them to see and consistently keep those standards at the same level for 80 minutes,” said Owens.
“I try to respond to similar offences in the same way whether it be in the first minute or the 79th minute. That way you get a true spectacle and competition. Players know where they are, how to react and how they're expected to behave.
“I would be the first to admit that in principle the task I have is simple; Apply the laws of the game. But equally, I am aware of the need to have a positive interpretation of those laws and produce a compelling spectacle for all as a result.
“As an example, if I see the openside defensive wing marginally offside 40 metres away as the scrum-half in possession breaks down the blindside, I may choose not the penalise. He (the wing) has not had a material affect on the game. I would possibly have a word and shout out that number 14 must stay in the line, but leave it there.
“However, if the scrum-half in possession broke open, looked up and changed his mind as a consequence of that wing rushing up, I may look upon it in more serious terms as the game has been changed. This is about materiality of the offence. Does it affect the game? If so, it should be pinged.”
Simple stuff, and one must applaud Owens' ability to empathise with the game, a hallmark of his style.
The IRB have fine tuned the laws in a positive fashion in the last four or five years. Nigel Owens believes it's all about a combination of referee interpretations, but an importance for the players and coaches to want to engage with those changes too. Have these amendments made the game easier from an official's perspective?
“There's nothing really wrong with the game as we currently stand,” said the veteran referee.
“As an example, we have a lovely balance between technical defence and technical attack at the contact area right now and sides that want to stay on their feet, enter from behind the rear of the breakdown will be rewarded with positive refereeing and a great contest for the spectator.
“Equally, we all know that players will try and push the boundaries if you let them. It goes back to my point about early benchmarks and keeping the standards at the same level. It's utterly essential.”
With so many Tests under his belt Owens is coy about his ambitions. However, enjoyment is thematic throughout his approach and he's keen to point out that that is his key motivation.
“Many ask me about World Cup Finals and so on, but that's not my approach. I don't set goals like 'the next big game'; instead I focus on letting the game breathe and gaining pleasure from being critical of my own performance and trying to improve,” he explained.
“I've certainly made myself available until the end of 2015 and maybe I'll re-assess at that point, but providing the mind is willing and the body is fit, I see no reason to consider retirement whilst I'm enjoying it so much.”
That theme of engagement and passion certainly comes across in Nigel Owens' every Test match, as recent history has shown. Let's hope he continues as he has the happy knack of inspiring some great test matches whenever he's in charge.
Here's to the next 50, Nigel!
Nigel Owens was speaking to James While