'Rugby saved my life'
SPOTLIGHT: Nigel Owens has said Rugby Union “saved” his life as he prepares to become the first referee to take charge of 100 Tests.
The Welsh official will reach the landmark when he presides over the year-end Nations Cup international between France and Italy in Paris on Saturday.
And while proud of that achievement, Owens believes rugby union has been central to his very existence after the sport helped him recover from the trauma of a failed suicide attempt when he was struggling with his identity as a gay man.
“I spent about nine to 10 years of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t and that nearly cost me my life,” Owens told World Rugby’s ‘Between the Lines’ podcast.
“From that day on, when I had that second chance, I’ve always said to myself, ‘Just be yourself’.
“I’d like to think that I have contributed something to the game over the years and if I have, then I am really glad, because believe me, I owe more to rugby and the people in the sport, than rugby will ever owe to me,” he added.
“If it wasn’t for the great sport rugby is, I wouldn’t be able to be who I am today. Rugby saved my life.”
Owens eventually became so at ease with his homosexuality he once said: ‘I’m straighter than that one’ to Harlequins hooker Dave Ward after a wayward line-out throw.
“Contrary to what people think or may tell you, I certainly don’t go out onto the field having prepared one-liners or to try and be funny,” Owens said.
“Dave Ward thanked me after the game for that comment because he was so embarrassed at the time and he said it made him laugh and helped him to move on from it.
“I was on stage at 14 years of age in a local working men’s club doing stand-up comedy, so this is who I am, I am on that field and I am myself.”
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Owens, who turns 50 in June, said of his landmark match: “When I got my 71st cap, I became the most capped referee, I overtook [South Africa’s] Jonathan Kaplan.
“It wasn’t something I was chasing, but something you become aware of and something you become very proud of.”
“It is very similar now with this. If I was to tell you I don’t really care about numbers, and if any referee was to tell you that, I don’t think they are being very honest with you because it is something special, something you can look back at.”
Owens, who cites the 2015 World Cup final, where New Zealand beat Australia at Twickenham, as the highlight of his 17 years as a Test referee, thought about calling time on his international career following England’s semi-final victory against the All Blacks at this year’s edition in Japan.
And with that match leaving him on 97 Tests, he decided to press on to three figures.
“I was just loving it and couldn’t find it in me to say, that’s it, I’m done,” explained Owens.