Nigel Owens about demons and saving a life
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Nigel Owens says refereeing the 2015 World Cup final was the pinnacle of his professional career, but his most rewarding moment was being told he had helped save a teenage boy’s life.
The Welshman is looking forward to a quieter life away from the international spotlight as a farmer with his 40 Hereford cattle after his 100th and final Test.
Last month’s France v Italy match in the Autumn Nations Cup was the end of a remarkable chapter in the life of the 49-year-old, who refereed his first international in 2003.
Owens, who revealed he was gay more than a decade ago, lay dying on a Welsh mountainside in 1997, having taken a mix of alcohol and pills as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality.
He told AFP that it would have been too late had he been found just half an hour later.
Owens’ candour about his sexuality – he came out in 2007 despite working in the macho world of rugby – encouraged one young boy to tell his parents he was gay.
The mother wrote to the referee thanking him for saving her son’s life – he had tried to commit suicide as he wrestled with whether his parents would accept he was gay.
“The most rewarding moment is to have saved someone’s life,” Owens said.
“To have saved someone’s son it is hugely gratifying, much more so than refereeing any World Cup final.
“I do think by talking about it [the inner fight], it does help people and saves lives.”
Owens knew how badly his own suicide attempt had affected his parents – they told him they would not have been able to carry on living without him.
He said it was important to look forward but not banish the past.
“Looking back is important as it formed who you are today, the good things you learned and those things you did not do well,” he said.
“There is no harm done in reflecting on how very lucky one has been to come out of that situation alive.”
Fulfilled a dream’
Owens said LGBT rights was not an area he chose to focus on all of the time, despite his personal experience.
“I do when I am asked to talk about it around mental health,” he said.
“Normal after-dinner speaking engagements, I don’t touch on it.
“I am not going to shout about it from the rooftops as I believe that hinders progression in equality.”
The veteran referee said society was a more accepting place than it was “30-40” years ago but coming out could still be tough.
“In one sense it is easier but it is a very individual thing to be coming to terms with one’s sexuality,” he said.
“People find it hard to understand why more gay people are not coming out but the answer is they are struggling with who they are, like I was.
“A lot of work is being done to make sport a safer and more inclusive place and I believe rugby has led the way in that.”
There are of course lighter moments in Owens’ long career as a referee.
He recalls an under-12 boys match between Cwmbran and Pencoed.
“Ah it sticks in my memory, the kids faces when I turned up,” he said. “I had been on TV the night before refereeing a professional game.
“The kids’ jaws dropped when they saw me and one said ‘I hope you are going to referee better than you did last night’.”
Owens is happy to switch his attention to farming in south Wales, though he will continue to referee Pro14 games until the end of the season.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” said Owens, who has named his herd Mairwen in honour of his late mother.
“It was my first dream as a kid,” he said. “It takes a lot of money to set up a farm and so it took time to do that.
“It is great to have fulfilled a dream.”
As to whether handling cows is more challenging than rugby players?
“Not that different,” he chuckled. “You tell them where to go and cows like players do so.
“However, while cows may not answer back they are a bit more stubborn.”