THE epic Lions-All Blacks series produced spectacular rugby for three straight weekends but discussion about the series will forever be focussed on the same thing - controversial refereeing decisions. The world’s top-ranked whistleblower Nigel Owens says pressure on referees has never been greater, with media attention expanding rapidly, new technologies and the invasive creep of social media. In Sydney while filming an ad for Emirates recently (before the third Lions Test), Owens said he was open to more transparency in contentious refereeing moments, but the game must guard against abuse towards officials and the loss of a core element of rugby: respect. Owens spoke with Daily Telegraph rugby writer Iain Payten.
Payten: You were involved in a campaign to highlight and eliminate referee abuse last year. Why is it that an important issue to you and do you think we should be worried about that in rugby?
Owens: I do think it is important because one of the most important fundamental values of rugby union is the value of respect. And that respect is from players to officials and vice-versa, and spectators sitting in the stadium supporting different teams who are able to enjoy each other’s company. We must never lose that from the game.
That’s one the most important values and core values of rugby, and has always been. Wirth the way society is these days, I think respect is sadly lacking in everyday life. Those boundaries are being pushed back in sport, including rugby.
So it’s important to stay on top of from that point of view. But I also think it is important from the bigger picture as well, of recruitment and retention of referees as well.
There are some referees who will walk away from the game, especially younger referees, if abuse is going to increase and so on. We can’t afford to lose them. So it’s important for rugby as a sport in general, and important for us as referees, that we are able to recruit, develop and retain referees because they so important to the game.
P: Has the pressure on a referee significantly increased in the modern sporting world? In most parts of the world, the television coverage for rugby has doubled or tripled in size, there is now huge money involved, social media means every single refereeing decision can be argued about for days.
O: That’s very true. You sometimes people read articles or hear people commentating on TV, especially in the last 10 years when rugby’s profile and the sport itself has grown so dramatically worldwide, and the refereeing is put right in the centre of many, many conversations.
The referee as an individual has become an integral part of the sport. Rugby wanted to get to a global audience and to do they need to simplify the game. Because you can’t really do that in a laws sense, as in simplify it any more than it is now without changing the nature of the sport, What they decided to do was bring the microphone onto the referee so they could explain themselves and the decisions.
That allows people to understand the game easier and get new people into the sport.
But all of a sudden, the referees, we were thrown into the spotlight. There were far more games being showed live on television, every year it has increased.
The referee had always had an important role - not the most important I must add, and we must never get to a stage where we think we are - but the referee in the game being a recognised voice and a recognised person, has brought on a lot of extra pressure.
I get a bit annoyed sometimes when people say you must be seeking attention. Well, no, most of us as referees don’t want to be centre of attention. We are wary of the microphones. You are doing for the good of the game and have been asked to do it. That’s why we’re doing it.
Through all that comes the extra pressure. Every game is on the television, live coverage. Every decision you make there are 25 or 32 cameras reviewing every single decision you make. The nature of a human being sometimes, people don’t write in the papers the good things that people do. They always write the bad things that happen. That’s human nature, to pick up the paper and read the scandals.
P: What about the impact of social media? You are on Twitter. How does that instant feedback from thousands of fans, often angry fans, make you feel?
O: Whether it be TV, social media, news reports, papers - everybody wants to discuss the decision that is controversial. Whether the referee got it right or the referee got it wrong, and with that has come a huge amount of pressure as referees.
When you used to referee a game ten years ago, if I was to referee a game in Australia or England or New Zealand or Africa, you’d referee the game and then fly home and you wouldn’t neccesarily know what the public or the media in that country was saying about you and your performance or your decisions.
Now, the way social media is, unless you can totally shut down and get away from it - which is almost impossible - you are going to be followed by what people are saying and writing about you. That brings on another type of pressure as well.
When you are refereeing a big game, every single decision you make, particularly a controversial one or one that could have gone either way, is going to be replayed on the big screen in the stadium.
The spectators in the stadium, everyone watching at home, the players and you as a referee, can now see almost immediately whether you got a decision right or wrong. That adds a huge amount of pressure.
It happened to me in the World Cup final, when there was a forward pass in the game. New Zealand made it and unfortunately myself and my team of officials missed it. All of a sudden I could see that being replayed on the screen and I know I got that wrong. That adds a huge amount of pressure. So then, for the next 60 minutes, you have got to referee that game and forget that you got it wrong. Because once you let that affect you, it affects the rest of your game.
And the last thing you want to do as a referee is try and make it right. You can’t do that.
Luckily enough, that mistake didn’t make any difference to the outcome of the game.
Those types of things now, there is a huge amount of pressure for a modern day referee that wasn’t there five or ten years ago.
P: A problem for many fans and commentators and even coaches is that referees aren’t publicly accountable. World Rugby or the relevant authority keep referees gagged and they rarely make comments themselves either on controversial calls. Would it be better for you to come out after a game and talk about a decision, why it was made etcetera, and then move on?
O: I would like to say the answer to that would be yes. But it is not as straightforward as you think it would be.
I’d have no issues when I sit down and review a game and see “yeah, I got that wrong” or “that was a tight call, I am not wrong but I can understand the other way could have also been correct”. And at the end of the day, you can’t defend the indefensible.
But also where do we draw the line in going out and having to explain some decisions, or every decision?
I am not sure we would be able to get that balance right. If we could, and there was a way of doing it, I would be supportive of that. But it needs to be sat down and thought through, the whole pros and cons, before that happened.
At the end of the day, when you come off the field as a referee, until you see that game back again which is usually a day or two later, I can’t really comment or analyse a decision.
There are so many in a game of rugby, and two referees could sit down and watch something and give entirely different decisions. And they could both be right.
If I was to referee a game, and there was a decision I got totally wrong or it was such a big decision that it needed to be clarified, then I wouldn’t have any problem in the referees manager or myself to come out and say we have reviewed it and the correct decision should have been this.
P: Or you could say I made that call and it was one 100 per cent right.
O: Exactly. But I have always said if a decision is such that the referees manager will come out and say it was right then you have to be able to say he got it wrong. It’s a very fine line and I guess one where all the pros and cons would be need to weighed up fairly carefully.
P: We often hear pre-match arguments between coaches in the media where one not-so-subtlely pushes the ref to crack down on something their rival does, and the rival coach tells them to stop trying to influence the referee. In all honesty, does any of that influence you in the lead-up or is it water off a ducks back?
O: Pretty much water off a duck’s back, in the most respectful way. You do tend to take some things with a pinch of salt as a referee. You can’t referee a Test match if you can’t deal with the pressure that comes with it. That’s one of the big challenges and the people who get to the top and stay there, they’re able to deal to with the pressures of the game and the pressure of when things don’t go right.
Some referees say they don’t read the media at all. I do. When I am in Australia or New Zealand or South Africa or wherever, I am always interested in the papers leading up to match day because it is part of the occasion. It is part of the build-up to a wonderful occasion you are going to be part of. I do read it.
So you are going to see what the coaches are saying, yes. It doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.
I am always going to referee what I see in front of me and deal with things as they happen on the field.
If the coaches say something in the press about the other team or vice-versa, I have never let that affect and I would never go to referee a Test match having been influenced by pre-match talk. That’s not how it works.
P: What about those meetings with coaches before Test matches? Some coaches like them, others think they’re a waste of time. Do they achieve anything? Should they be held at all?
O: I think the meetings can be quite constructive and productive. The coaches have the opportunity to sit down with you - some take it up, some don’t. They sit down with you and some may say “have you got anything for us?” and you might say “The last time I refereed you or I was on the touch for your game last week and this is a bit of a trend happening in the game, I don’t want to see this happening this week”.
Also the coaches as well can come to you and say: “Look Nigel, we are going to do this, we have this ploy or what have you, and we are just making you aware of it” and check in that it’s legal to do and that sort of thing.
And they’ll bring up areas of concern with the opposition. For example if they feel the opposition are encroaching on the offside line before the line out is over.
What you do then is you take what they’re saying, you may have a look at a couple of things and say “there’s nothing” or “fair enough, they have a point” and then you speak to the opposition and tell them this issue has been highlighted, so make sure it doesn’t happen because I am watching for it. They can tend to be very productive.
P: What about a referee’s relationships with individual teams, and players? The Wallabies have been concerned in recent years they had bad relationships with certain referees, yourself included, and couldn’t effectively communicate with officials in games. Is that fair? Does a history with a certain team or players influence a referee?
O: My relationship with all teams is exactly the same in my view. I don’t treat any differently. If I had to referee Wales for whatever reason, they would be treated the same as any other team. It doesn’t matter to me at all who is playing, it doesn’t matter who wins. I just go out and referee what is in front of me and I can honestly say every single team I have refereed I haven’t had an issue with any of the teams, and I certainly believe I haven’t had any issues with of the players on those teams as well. I certainly don’t have any issues and I am not aware of any issues they have with me, to be honest.
P: You are regarded as the world no.1 referee but your style is quite different from many others. You banter with players and those moments often go viral. Some people love it, some people don’t like it. What is behind that part of your style? Just to make life a bit more interesting?
O: The most important thing for me is that I go out on the field and I referee the game of rugby, and I do my best to referee a game. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s the job I do, so the players can play the game. That’s my job.
I just have a unique style of doing it. I don’t go out on the field and think “I am going to say something funny today” I just go out and referee and be myself. I don’t plan things but if I say something, I say it.
Sometimes you see it later around on on social media or something but you don’t honestly think what you said was all that remarkable.
For me, going out on that field is an honour and a privilege and the way I communicate and respect the players, and hopefully the way they respect me as well, is just me doing my job.
I can honestly say I don’t go out on the field with plans to say anything or being anyone different. I have spent too much time in my youth being somebody or trying to be somebody I was not, so I am certainly not going to be somebody I am not now. I just go on the field and be myself.
P: The Wallabies play the All Blacks next month. While we are talking about controversial decisions, can you tell us if you reviewed the call to disallow Henry Speight’s try in Auckland in the second Test, which ended up being a critical call? Did a second viewing of that change anything?
O: Unfortunately I can’t comment on any particular decisions. Like we spoke about, I would actually have no issues in discussing this and talking about why decisions were made, but unfortunately I am not able to do that as it stands. Sorry about that.
What I can say is to referee Australia and New Zealand is a huge honour really. I don’t get the opportunity to referee England/Wales which is our biggest game, and Australia/New Zealand is your biggest game. It is always a privilege to be appointed for a Bledisloe Cup match and be a small part of the occasion.