Nigel made me see things in a different light

To my knowledge, I’ve only been blocked by three users on Twitter. Two of which were Nigel Owens and Joseph O’Brien. While the reason for the young horse trainer putting up the barricades remains a mystery, the occasion which apparently stirred Nigel’s ire was another – possibly the first in fact – case of reacting impulsively after a sporting event (particularly one that hasn’t had the desired outcome here) instead of letting the emotions cool off before offering my own analysis!

The occasion in question cannot even be recalled in its totality. I know it was a game between Ireland and Scotland and on the day in question the Welsh whistler was – in the opinion of this observer – overtly harsh on the Irish at the scrum and breakdown. To the extent that, after the final whistle, the question was posted on the social media site: “Is Nigel Owens anti-Irish or just a f*****g bad referee?

One of his buddies, as I found out later, tagged him and retweeted “Why don’t you ask him yourself? ” And that was that. The irony was (a) it was the one and only time I ever tweeted negatively about him and (b) at least three of the papers the following day asked at least part of the same question the following day.

One of a kind: Nigel Owens

Look, I’m not trying to portray myself as whiter than white, I never have been or will be behind the door at pointing out what to me is bad refereeing. They are, after all, paid employees of the governing body of whatever sport they happen to be officiating at.

In any other line of paid work, performances are rigorously scrutisned and adjudicated on accordingly. With referees, certainly in some sporting codes anyway, it’s as if pundits and the media were sent to the blackboard and told to write We Must Not Criticise The Referee 100 times. Have the cajones to highlight poor refereeing and you risk being ostracised.

In my opinion, it starts with a mindset. A seasoned campaigner in all things GAA – and former inter-county referee – repeatedly tells me “The good referee is the one you don’t see”. I understand what he means. If a referee goes out to make it all about themselves, both teams are piddling against the wind before they even start.

I could think of at least a half dozen off the top of my head that would waltz into said criteria. Obviously, they have a tough job, but, the modern referee also has more backup – via other officials and assistive technologies – than was ever the case previously. Games should no longer hinge on the likelihood or otherwise of one big decision being correctly administered, or not. Yet only a few weeks ago we had the spectacle of Derry’s Barry Cassidy making an absolute horlicks of both of the Cavan Black Card incidents. Luckily enough it didn’t have an impact on the eventual outcome but the fact is it shouldn’t be happening in this day and age. If the GAA don’t want to take the plunge and go for two referees, they need to at the very least investigate the introduction of a Television Match Official – or whatever they might wish to title such an official.

Derry referee Barry Cassidy

From my own experience of being involved in team management, and I’m sure this is even more the case from a players perspective, the disparity in interpretation of the playing rules. That, and in some cases, wbat appears to be a complete unwillingness to communicate with players.

Rugby is, in my view, the best officiated sport in the world. Now, in the oval ball code, the referee is sacrosanct. A fact underpinned by the sight of somebody like 6ft11 Devin Toner almost bowing to a match official not up to his elbow. At times, the aura around the ref can seem almost manic in its pomposity.

However, the reward for players when they tow the line is that they are governed by the most communicative and forward thinking group of match officials anywhere in sport. To the point where they actually warn players they are about to foul the ball.

And none of them have or will ever be as good – or entertaining – at it as the recently retired man from the land of the dragon. Where does one even begin to capture properly his contribution to his area of expertise!?

Surely it has to be “This isn’t soccer, gentlemen” when admonishing two of his subjects for failing to conform to rugby’s etiquette? As hinted at earlier, the one major difference with officials in the oval ball discipline compared to some others is that they communicate continuously with the players, and, as with a lot of things, Nigel did it better than most. “Oh Christopher!” He almost theatrically exclaimed when English flanker Chris Robshaw had the temerity to question one of his rulings.

In the last decade or so, it would have been fairly well accepted that David Coldrick from the Blackhall Gaels club in Meath was the best referee in the country. In my view, Cork’s Conor Lane has now assumed the role. However, it has to be said that the four-time All Ireland Final referee gave a wonderful display of how the job can and should be done when he was mic’d up for an RTE documentary a couple of years back.

All Ireland SFC Final Referee David Coldrick

Predictably but nonetheless regrettably, the reaction to David taking part in the programme was largely negative. The accusation being that he displayed too much familiarity with the players – particularly the Dublin ones. To me, that’s total balderdash. A bit of a rapport between referee and players can only be a good thing and build respect. Seeing him interact with the players – as Barry Kelly in hurling also used to – was to see the nearest our games have to Nigel Owens at present. In contrast to another inter county referee who pointed out to a county team manager at a club game not all that long ago “You won’t have as good a referee as me next week”. I ask you!

Nigel Owens was a cut above them all though. And not just in terms of refereeing either. It is very easy to follow trends, it takes a lot more courage to start one. Especially if beginning said trend is going completely against the grain to the extent that one runs the gauntlet of incurring abuse, bile and raw hatred.

Now, having struggled with matters around intimacy and sexuality for a very long time, I know how difficult it can be to open up about such things. So I can’t even begin to ponder how it must have been for Owens to come out as gay especially in a world portrayed as being as macho as rugby is. Though perhaps it says more about the popularity of the man and the esteem in which he is held within the rugby community that not only was he accepted as he ever was after his announcement, he became a leader and inspiration for such openness which undoubtedly encouraged others wrestling quietly with opening up regarding their situations to do so. I know from my own perspective, Nigel made me see things from a different light.

Chief among them, the equally inspirational former Rugby Union and Rugby League star Gareth Thomas who has become a beacon of hope for so many others having been very open about the tragic circumstances which have befallen his own life. This is only my opinion, but, it’s hardly coincidence that Thomas went public with his story in an era where Nigel Owens not only made it doable but proved that it was the strong, brave and momentum-shifting thing to do.

Gareth Thomas.

To say that rugby won’t be the same without Nigel’s distinct, ebullient personality is paramount to pointing out Sunday is the last day of the week. Hope and expectation would be that the now retired adjudicator will still be very much part of public life. If by some wild chance he ever does see this, hopefully it will be clear that my view has gone full circle from that day of what was a rash, irrational reaction. Sure he is a beef farmer!

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