Referees, or so the common belief goes, should be largely anonymous. Nigel Owens does not fit into that category.
Away from sport he has something of a profile. Owens, 40, threw himself into the public’s consciousness in 2007 by announcing that he is homosexual. In the world of sport, this is generally a taboo subject. In rugby, not least the professional ranks, it was unheard of.
One successful autobiography, a series of television appearances and the occasional gig as a comedian later, Owens is one of the most well-known sporting figures in Wales.
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On the pitch, he is just as conspicuous. He has overseen 27 Tests since taking charge of Portugal versus Georgia in 2003, and his vocal style and the accompanying Welsh accent have made him familiar to rugby audiences around the world.
However, one of the most respected officials in the game fell into refereeing by accident. Owens grew up in the small village of Mynyddcerrig in Carmarthenshire and, like most of his friends, Owens was a keen rugby player.
Sadly for him, though, he was not a particularly good player. He remembers an occasion when, as a 16-year-old full back for his school team, he botched a last-minute penalty. Allied with his poor tackling and difficulties under the high ball, his teacher instructed him to 'go and referee or something, will you?'
It changed the course of his life. He joined Llanelli and District Referees Society and made his refereeing debut in the Carmarthenshire v Pembrokeshire Schools Under-15s match in 1988.
Between then and now, he has established himself as a world-class referee, taking charge of a record eight finals in the International Rugby Board World Sevens Series before making his mark as the only Welsh referee at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.
Domestically, he is one of only two men to referee back-to-back Heineken Cup finals – Munster versus Toulouse at the Millennium Stadium in 2008 and Leinster versus Leicester at Murrayfield in 2009.
However, unfortunately for him, he was the official during the match that spawned the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ scandal.
When it was revealed that Harlequins’ Tom Williams had faked an injury to allow a substitution late in a Heineken Cup quarter-final clash against Leinster, the reverberations shook rugby to its core and resulted in heavy sanctions for the guilty parties. Owens, though, was the innocent bystander in the incident, and his reputation has gone from strength to strength.
Known for his frequent communications with the players and thorough monitoring of the breakdown and scrums, Owens will officiate the Fiji-Namibia, New Zealand-Japan, Australia-USA and South Africa-Samoa matches.
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