Nigel Owens: Referees are scared to make a mistake these days

Empathy is in short supply at the moment according to the rugby great.



When you referee 100 international rugby test matches, you’d like to think that you know a thing or two about controlling a game. That’s exactly how Nigel Owens feels after he made the tough decision to end his international career last November on a world record mark of games.

Part of Owens’ choice to move on was to offer a chance to the next generation of referees to move up in the ranks ahead of the 2023 World Cup in France. However, he feels that some of the newer officials and a few of his former colleagues are falling into a trap of attempting to be perfect when they take charge of a match.

Owens was well known for his rapport with players and says wants to see a bit more “empathy” from professional referees. Owens was our guest of honour on the From The Horse Mouth podcast this week as he chatted to hosts Ruby Walsh and Paddy Power. The Welsh rugby legend covered a range of topics and was refreshingly honest, so don’t miss out on this episode folks.



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“It’s a very, very difficult balance to get,” Owens reflected when the lads asked about refereeing standards today.

“Sometimes, even in the latter part of my career, I got it wrong where I would certainly not blow enough! You need to get a balance right of knowing when to blow the whistle and when not to.

The easy part of refereeing is blowing the whistle.

“The difficult bit was knowing when not to blow it because the laws are there for a reason. By applying the laws, but also getting a balance of empathy, that’s when the game will flow. If you go too much one way or the other, then the game will suffer.”


Owens was quick to point out he was far from flawless in his career, but he feels that common sense has gone out of the sport a little bit now.

“Sometimes, I should have probably been a little bit quicker on a whistle a couple of times. It would have maybe contributed and helped the game, rather than being a bit too lenient on the whistle,” said Owens acceptingly.

But, I’d like to think for most of the time, I got the balance right.

“That’s what sets apart then the best referees to the other referees, and the referees who get to the highest level and stay at the top of the game until they finish – rather than those who just get their couple of games and then they’re on their way back down.

“That’s the one worry I have, that there’s so much pressure on referees today not to make mistakes. I look at some refs and it seems that they’re scared of making a mistake.”


Owens isn’t quite sure where that burden comes from, but he’d like to see today’s officials ease up a little and understand where players are coming from a little more.

“Whether it’s the pressure they put on themselves, or it’s pressure that’s put on them by the referees managers or the selectors – which is the case sometimes – I’m not sure”, said Owens.

I feel that takes away the enjoyment on the field and their contribution to the game.

“I watch some games and I do worry a bit that there are some referees out there now who don’t have that empathy. It’s just, if this happens, this is what I’ve got to do.

“Refereeing is not black and white. There’s a lot of grey. If you can navigate your way through that grey, you will contribute to a great game of rugby. There’s not many referees out there at the moment who can get that balance right.”


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