Rugby Referee Creates a Buzz While Keeping the Peace


He writes a weekly column for the Western Mail, often veering well outside the subject of sports. (A sample headline: “The Nigel Owens column: “Some vegans go too far with their extreme view.”)

He is an advocate and symbol for gay rights, having come out publicly in his early 30s, when no other person in the top levels of rugby had done so.

Now, with retirement in view, Owens will get one last appearance on the game’s biggest stage when he referees this year’s Rugby World Cup, his fourth, starting Friday in Japan. Organizers already have announced that Owens will officiate the opening match.

There has long been a sentiment among some in sports that referees should stay anonymous and mostly out of mind. Others say that sentiment is outdated, with a confluence of factors elevating the profile of referees: a microscopic approach, aided by video technology, to assessing officiating decisions; the insatiable appetites of fans for more information, fed by a surplus of voices online; and that international rugby referees have worn microphones during matches for more than a decade.

In these circumstances, Owens has excelled, making him in some ways the quintessential 21st-century referee.

Stuart Barnes, 56, a former rugby player who works as an analyst for Sky Sports, used the concept of “flow” as a sort of catchall metric for the overall proficiency of an official.

For example, referees who officiate with a strict interpretation of rugby’s byzantine rule book, blowing their whistles for everything, disrupt a game’s flow. So, too, do referees who lean on video replays instead of having the confidence to trust their own eyes, referees who can’t keep insubordinate players in check, and referees who don’t communicate smoothly with their fellow officials. Owens, Barnes said, avoids these traps.

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