Boks will be happy to have ‘bent’ ref for their clash today

2009-11-28 00:00

NIGEL Owens, who will referee today’s Test between the Springboks and Ireland at Croke Park, is a definitely different man for any number of reasons.

It was 13 years ago that the Welshman, tubby, bulimic, feeding on steroids and secretly gay, tried to kill himself. But, since those dark days, Owens has turned his life around and become one of the leading referees in world rugby.

Owens came within minutes of ending his life in 1996. Tired of the lie he was living, he left his home in a Welsh valley near Llanelli and took to the hills with a bottle of sleeping pills and a shotgun. He was unconscious when he was found and was rushed to hospital in a police helicopter. He was 24.

Deeply ashamed, he managed to turn his life around with his refereeing providing him with an escape hatch. He had quit playing, he says, after he had missed a last-minute penalty and his annoyed coach told him “to go and take up refereeing”.

Seven years later he was on the international panel and he was the only Welsh referee to officiate at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

In May, 2007, just months before the RWC, he publicly came out as a homosexual.

“It’s such a big taboo to be gay in my line of work, I had to think very hard about it because I didn’t want to jeopardise my career.”

But for Owens, now 36, it proved a turning point in his life.

“When I came out, it took a lot of weight off my shoulders that I was accepted, that I was gay and it made no difference. My refereeing improved because I was happy and my career took off.”

Owens is now a television personality in Wales and last year he wrote his autobiography Half Time.

Owens says that he has not suffered any discrimination or any homophobic abuse from spectators.

Occasionally, he says, there has been the odd amusing remark such as “we’ve got the bent referee today” to imply that he may be biased, “but that’s a joke and banter”.

Still, Owens has stayed in the headlines. He was the referee who was pushed roughly aside by Northampton and former Springbok prop Brian Mujati this year. (Mujati received only a six-week ban because he was concussed at the time).

And Owens was in charge at “Bloodgate” last season when a Harlequins player faked an injury by using blood capsules in the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Harlequins and Leinster.

It was an eye-opener for Owens and, indeed, the rest of the rugby-playing world.

“Players and coaches don’t give a s**t about you as a referee. If they can get away with something, and win, they won’t care about the consequences,” Owen says, pointing out that he could have been sacked for failing to notice the cheating had Quins fooled the officials and won.

But Owens says that the traumatic events of his life have made him more confident and able to cope with events on the pitch.

Owens has refereed the Springboks in three Tests and they have all been won by the South Africans — the 42-6 thumping of England at Twickenham late last year, the 31-19 win over the All Blacks in Durban this season and then the 32-29 Tri-Nations decider in Hamilton.

His early decisions in the Hamilton Test — when he blew John Smit at the kick-off and then moments later for deliberately collapsing a scrum when the Bok captain slipped — did bother the Boks but they recovered to win.

Owens will bring back happy memories for the Springboks today and they will be happy to have the “bent” referee in charge — as long as he is consistent.

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