Former Test referee Nigel Owens believes that the abuse of match officials will only stop when alterations are made to social media.
Owens, who was one of the game’s great officials, was speaking after his friend and referee Wayne Barnes received death threats in the wake of the Rugby World Cup final.
Barnes’ aim in retirement
The 44-year-old has since announced his retirement from refereeing and will spend part of his time helping officials who have suffered similar abuse.
“Online abuse is unfortunately something the referees of today have to deal with. It’s the world we live in but it’s disgraceful and totally unacceptable,” Owens told MailSport.
The 52-year-old had the honour of refereeing the 2015 World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia and was widely praised for his performance, but there have been other times where he has received horrific messages.
“It’s not going to change unless we change the rules on social media and make people accountable for their words and actions. It’s a toxic place and very, very unfortunate,” Owens said.
“I lived in that world and still do now. I got homophobic comments so I know exactly what it’s like.”
Owens also paid tribute to Barnes who ended a distinguished career on Thursday, which saw him referee in five Rugby World Cups and take charge of several European and Premiership finals.
“Wayne will quite rightly go down in history as one of the all-time great referees,” he said. “His contribution to the game on and off the field is a great credit to him both as a referee and a person. What better way to bow out than in a World Cup final?
“He’s been at the top of his game for a long time now and I always say you become a better referee when you retire!”
Supporting the next generation
Barnes will also join Owens in helping the next batch of young referees, who will hopefully reach – and perhaps even surpass – the standards set by those two.
“All credit to him for wanting to support the referees of the future,” the Welshman added.
“It’s something I work on in my role now in Wales. There is a culture of keyboard warriors out there. Social media is toxic.
“Sometimes you wonder whether it’s worth being on there. I think everyone – not just in rugby – can think about the impact sending a message on social media can have.”