Nigel Owens on his farm in Wales with his partner Barrie
Here at his home in Pontyberem, a rugby-steeped village in Carmarthenshire’s Gwendraeth Valley, Nigel Owens finds his ultimate inner peace. He has just finished tending to his Hereford cattle, he is building a house fit for a Test referee-turned-farmer, and now, with his partner Barrie, he is exploring the adoption route in pursuit of a long-harboured desire to start a family.
“I couldn’t envisage living anywhere else,” he says, the balloons from his 50th birthday still adorning the dining room table. “This is where I grew up, where my memories are. I’ll move two miles up the road and that’ll be it. I’ve travelled the world. Welsh is my first language and there’s still a huge Welsh-speaking community here. At the shop, pretty much everybody speaks it. That’s what makes you.”
Owens is hoping to complete his new-found contentment by becoming a father. “We were thinking about surrogacy,” he says. “But there seemed to be a bit of risk: time, emotion, the danger it wouldn’t work in the end. So, going down the adoption route is the more realistic option. We’ll probably start that process in the next few months. It’ll take a while. A couple of kids, I hope.”
Farming and fatherhood: it would, for Owens, represent the perfect encore to an extraordinary rugby life. He conveys little sense, seven months into his retirement, that he is pining for the sport, despite having taken charge of a record 100 Tests in 17 years. “I’m not missing it one bit at the moment,” he acknowledges. “I did worry, ‘How am I going to cope?’ Everything would take second place to rugby: friends, weddings. But I have always wanted to be a farmer. Growing up, there was a little farm behind where I lived. I would sneak through a hole in the fence in the field just to help them. My grandmother used to make her own butter.
“A couple of smallholdings came up but I didn’t want to move away from the area. I was able to invest a bit of money and buy the land, the cattle, the machinery, put the sheds up. It has fulfilled an ambition – and it has helped me. With finishing the refereeing, the transition has been seamless.”
Nigel Owens on his farm in Wales
From next week, Owens joins Telegraph Sport as a columnist, offering peerless analysis of the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa. Rugby undoubtedly misses him, even if the feeling is not mutual. Its tapestry was all the richer for his witticisms. He would remind a protesting scrum-half that “this is not soccer” and criticise a crooked lineout feed with the timeless words, “I’m straighter than that one”. He was described by colleague Jonathan Kaplan as the world’s finest referee “by a mile”, and officiated the thunderous World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand with such unfussy efficiency that Owen Farrell did not even notice he was nursing an injured leg.
But the reality was that he found himself falling out of love with the job. It was not just that throughout his eight weeks in Japan for the last World Cup he would count down the days until he could return. The increasingly fragmentary nature of rugby at the highest level, not least the incessant checking with the television match official, was also starting to irk him. Asked whether the game is tying itself in knots by seeking second opinions on so many on-field decisions, he answers bluntly.
“I think it is. There was one incident, in Cardiff in 2012, where Andrew Hore, the All Blacks hooker, swung an arm that took out Bradley Davies, the Welsh second row, at a maul. Greg Garner was the touch judge on that side. He shouldn’t have been looking at anything else but what was happening off the ball. And it was missed. There was no excuse for not seeing it. From that moment, they pushed and pushed to bring the TMO protocol in.
“But I warned, ‘The more you’re going to extend this protocol, the more controversy you’re going to have, because the referees’ focus will change’. That’s what has happened. It’s a little bit like walking from one skyscraper to another on a tightrope. When you put a safety net underneath, you’re going to walk across not caring if you’re going to fall. That’s when the mistakes happen. You take the net away, you’re going to make damn sure you concentrate, that you don’t make a mistake. The TMO is a safety net.”
The TMO is often seen as a safety net
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
It is a message that Owens is desperate to impart to the young referees he now mentors. “The conversation is, ‘Don’t worry, if we miss something, the TMO will clear it up’. No, you go out on the field to referee it. There are more talking points now about decisions by referees than there ever were before. We really need to look at the protocol, to ensure that it only comes in for the act of scoring or for pretty bad foul play. When it begins deciding, ‘Did the ball touch his fingertip and go forward?’, then the game is going to lose itself. That’s where it is at the moment.”
Owens has forged such an enviable reputation through his ability to leaven directness with humour. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in how he dealt with Chris Robshaw, who in the chaos of a Six Nations decider in 2015 queried his judgment once too often. “Erm, Christopher!” he barked. “Sorry, sir,” the England captain replied, every inch the scolded schoolboy.
He cannot help but smile at the memory. “I was out on stage doing stand-up comedy at 14. It’s a particularly Welsh sense of humour, one you find here in the countryside in West Wales. Probably the biggest compliments I have had are from players who say, ‘Once we hear you’re refereeing, we just get on with our own game. We know we can relax and enjoy it’.”
Still, woe betide any referees who overdo the familiarity with players. On that score, Owens is withering in his judgment. “Some are too friendly,” he argues. “One of the guys I coach is doing his first Test this month. I said to him, ‘I don’t want to hear you on the field calling players by their first name, or calling them ‘mate’.’ You don’t say, ‘Chris, move away’. You say, ‘No 7’. They need to find a balance between being too aggressive and all this pally-pally stuff.”
Owens’ talent and charisma assured him of an unparalleled profile as a referee. The flipside to such fame, and a key factor in his decision to step away, was it would magnify the scrutiny of his performances. “I did find that, if I were to make one error in a game, people would make videos or podcasts about it. Luke Fitzgerald, the Irish player, did exactly that. Somebody actually said to me, ‘If we have a go at Nigel’s refereeing, we know we’re going to get more listeners’. I felt that was an unfair pressure. I don’t miss that one bit.”
These days, Owens is at liberty to savour the game without any outside sniping. He enjoys nothing more than watching Pontyberem’s local matches, fortified by a few beers, and has become involved with the Wales squad in helping players to prepare for Tests. He had even intended, with 20 others in the village, to fly to South Africa for the Lions tour, a plan now thwarted by the country’s blanket ban on travelling fans.
As a touring destination, South Africa retains a singular place in Owens’ affections, given he presided over the Springboks’ famous 2013 clash with New Zealand at Ellis Park, widely heralded as the greatest and most ferocious Test ever played. “Oh God,” he recalls. “Still people come up and call it the best they have ever seen. Steve Hansen always does. Jean de Villiers, too. If anyone asks what Lions tour I would go on as a spectator, it would probably be South Africa. It’s the brutality of it, plus the fact you’re now playing against the world champions.”
He still studies games with an intensely critical eye, piqued by the growing recourse to the “captain’s challenge”. One challenge, however, commanded his utmost admiration: the move by Sam Warburton to talk Romain Poite into reversing an All Blacks penalty, instead giving an accidental offside, enabling the 2017 Lions to grasp the final Test draw and level the series. “That was brilliant captaincy by Sam. I had spoken to Sam quite a few times leading up to that. Romain is a very good referee. If you keep going with him, he’ll just shut you off. But if you speak to him just once or twice, when you really have to, you will get more response. If it hadn’t been for that change of decision, the Lions would have lost.”
Owens, having cut his teeth on uncompromising local matches in the Valleys during the late 1980s, understands the art of asserting authority. “You learned quickly how to deal with hard-nosed players to control games,” he explains. “Control is a key element.” It was a skill he retained throughout, marshalling the 2015 World Cup final so expertly that Australia’s David Pocock, battered by defeat in the last game of his career, approached him at the end to say: “Thanks for a great game.”
He is adamant that he could have continued on until his fifth World Cup in 2023, stressing: “If I wanted to referee an international now, I could easily do it – fitness isn’t an issue.” But he believes that, on balance, his energies today are best harnessed in bringing his farming dream to fruition. “The time came,” Owens says. “My ambition was to be a farmer, long before I started refereeing. So, don’t give up.” The Herefords happily grazing in the field opposite provide ample testament to his own powers of positive thought.