After a glittering international refereeing career that lasted 17 years, Nigel Owens decided to hang up his test whistle after taking charge of France and Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup last November. The game marked the Welshman’s 100th time to take charge on the international stage, a world record for the most test matches refereed and is a benchmark that may take a long time to equal.
Owens’ announcement came as a bit of a surprise to rugby fans as the 49-year-old seemed to be still on top of his game and was widely considered the best official in the world at the time. However, he revealed to Paddy Power and Ruby Walsh on our From The Horse’s Mouth podcast this week that some of the game’s top brass wanted him gone before he could reach the three figure mark.
It really was a can’t miss episode for fans of the oval ball and Nigel was as open and honest as always.
“Every weekend I was away, or busy refereeing and I was a bit worried of what’s going to happen when that all comes to an end”, Owens told Paddy and Ruby.
“That was one of the reasons why I went into farming, I had an ambition when I was eight years of age to be a farmer. I’ve got a little smallholding and a 42 herd of pedigree Hereford cattle at the moment, so I’m actually working more now than I’ve ever done.
It took me 41 years to achieve that, so if you’ve got a goal, hang onto it because it certainly is achievable.
“That also helped me with the transition from refereeing. So, retirement has been enjoyable, and the transition from it has been much smoother than I would have anticipated.”
However, it was a transition that some of World Rugby’s leading officials were keen to push Owens into much earlier than the Welsh legend wanted to. He disclosed to our hosts that he was forced to fight back against those that wanted him to retire before he made the 100 tests mark.
“I always wanted to leave while I was still at the top of my game, rather than people saying, “He’s past his best, he should finish now”, said Owens.
That’s a very, very difficult balance to get because when you’re still at the top of your game, you feel like you can go on forever.
“I came out of the World Cup in 2019, which was going to be my last. My aim in that World Cup was to do a semi-final, because I’d done a quarter in 2011 and I did a quarter and a final in 2015 – so I wanted to do a semi-final, at least.
“I did a semi-final (England v New Zealand) in 2019 , which actually turned out to be the best game of the tournament. I was on 97 test matches and then I was given England v France in the Six Nations after the World Cup.
“Then it was suggested to me by the people in charge of refereeing at the time, that I should finish now because they needed to appoint the next generations of referees.”
It was a request that Owens flatly rejected, because not only was he close to a landmark test figure, but he still felt he was one of the elite officials in the game.
“I said, ‘You’re asking me to do a very difficult thing, to finish when I’m still one of your top referees. I’ve just refereed the best game in the World Cup!’
I can’t finish now. I don’t want to finish now.
“Not that numbers are a goal for me, but after the Six Nations, I was on 98. I’m just two games away from 100,” Owens explained.
“A couple of people did not want to appoint me to get to 100 games. That was very disappointing to hear from one or two of the selectors. I was a bit hurt by that.”
Despite the angst caused by some attempting to push him into an unwanted early retirement, Owens made it to the magic total when he took charge of France v Italy on November 28 last year and he felt the time was right to declare his innings then.
“Thankfully, a couple of other selectors said, “You’re still our top referee and for all you’ve given to the game over the years, the least we can do is give you another two games to get to 100”.”
I chose my ending.
“I decided, right, 100th game and out. I wasn’t going to give anybody the opportunity – if that was going to happen – to tell me, you’re dropped and you’re gone”, said the Welsh rugby legend.
“Jealousy, in all walks of life, is a terrible thing, isn’t it? You just wonder sometimes, but there we are. I got to the 100 and I enjoyed it. I’d like to think that in those two games – in the England-Georgia match and the France-Italy game – that I still performed as one of the top referees.”
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