Nigel Owens got the call he had hoped for on Monday. The 44-year-old Welshman had been chosen to referee today’s Rugby World Cup final. It was, he said, a “huge honour and a privilege” — one that confirms his position as the world’s best referee, and as a celebrity almost as big as the players he will be managing at Twickenham before a global television audience of perhaps 120 million. It is also, he adds, a “pinnacle” in a life that he came precariously close to terminating 19 years ago.
At 2.30 one April morning in 1996, Owens slipped out of his parents’ house in the tiny Welsh village of Mynyddcerrig, near Llanelli, leaving behind a note saying that he had reached the end of his tether and saw suicide as the only solution. He was carrying two boxes of paracetamol, a bottle of whisky and a loaded shotgun. He walked round the village where he had grown up for what he believed was the last time, then climbed the Banc y ddraenen mountain overlooking Mynyddcerrig. At the top he washed the pills down with the whisky and fell into a coma.
“What I took to end my life actually saved it,” Owens told me at his home shortly before the World Cup began. “If I hadn’t taken the pills and the whisky I have no doubt that I’d have pulled the trigger of the gun and I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.” In the event, a police helicopter spotted him later that morning and took him to a hospital in Carmarthen. “The doctor said another 20 minutes and it would have been too late.”
The immediate cause of Owen’s suicide attempt was that he was bulimic and had become hooked on liquid self-injected steroids while trying to improve his physique. The root cause was a homosexuality of which, being a young man from the conservative Welsh valleys, he was deeply ashamed. “I was going downhill very, very fast to a dark place. There was no way out for me.”
For several more years Owens wrestled with his homosexuality. He went to gay nightclubs in Swansea and elsewhere, but was terrified of being recognised. He had encounters with other men that he enjoyed at the time but which left him feeling guilty and physically sick. He even asked his doctor about having a chemical castration. Finally, in 2007, he realised he had to “come out”, though he was certain that doing so would end his career as a top-level referee in the intensely physical and masculine sport of rugby. At that stage, not a single professional player had admitted to being gay.
“I had two options,” he says. “I could carry on living a lie, or I could come out and tell people who I am and give up refereeing.”
Coming out was far more nerve-racking than refereeing a rugby international before 80,000 screaming fans, he says. His mother cried. His bewildered father simply would not talk about it. Owens, a stand-up comic in his spare time, went public by literally stepping out of a closet on the set of the Jonathan Show, a Welsh television programme hosted by the former Welsh rugby star Jonathan Davies.
But Owens’s fears proved unfounded. Far from treating him as a pariah, the rugby world embraced him. “All the players fully support you and respect you for what you’ve done,” Barry Williams, the former British Lion, told him the following day. Since then “I’ve not had a single adverse reaction from the players,” Owens says. He once took some of the Wales team and their girlfriends to Club X, a gay nightclub in Cardiff, after an international match at the Millennium Stadium. He remembers entering the Ospreys changing room before a game and their captain, Ryan Jones, joking about putting some clothes on before tossing up. “It’s all right. You’re not my type,” Owens shot back, and everyone laughed.
There has been the occasional unsavoury incident involving fans. Two men were banned from Twickenham and ordered to pay £1,000 to a charity of Owens’s choice for shouting homophobic abuse at him last year, and a teenager apologised to Owens in person at a Welsh police station after posting a homophobic tweet about him. But the authorities took action and rugby has shown the way, Owens says.
“Looking back now at what a great sport rugby is, on and off the field, I need not have worried. My only regret is if I had done it sooner I would not have put myself and my family through that hell that night, and would probably not have struggled with depression for all those years. For what I put my family and friends through I will never forgive myself. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Would he have dared to come out if he had been a football referee? Owens hesitates. Not a single Premier League footballer has, during his playing career, publicly acknowledged being homosexual. “I like to think I’d have been able to do it but whether I’d have had the support in football that rugby has given me I honestly don’t know,” he says. “There’s a bigger minority with a louder voice in football, which would have made it more difficult.”
Acknowledging his homosexuality did not destroy Owens’s career. It made it. “My life changed, my refereeing changed and it took off from there,” he says. “Refereeing requires one thing more than anything else and that’s complete concentration for 80 minutes. Obviously if something is playing on your mind you are going to lapse in and out of concentration. A good referee is a happy referee.”
More than any of his fellow referees, Owens really does appear to enjoy the matches at which he officiates, though he admits that referees are about as popular as traffic wardens and that the pressure of the modern game — with its huge television audiences and instant big-screen replays — is “massive”. The South African referee Craig Joubert literally sprinted from the pitch, and was lynched in the social and mainstream media, after erroneously awarding a last-minute penalty that enabled Australia to beat Scotland in the quarter finals.
Owens knows when to blow the whistle but also, more importantly, when not to, thereby allowing games to flow. He referees with the authority of a stern headmaster and says that he would never put up with the abuse that his football counterparts endure from players and managers. “It’s unacceptable behaviour . . . I’d love to give refereeing football a go. I’m afraid they’d be down to five a side before half time,” he chuckles. “If you had coaches in rugby having a go at referees like [Chelsea’s] José Mourinho and some others do, they’d be dealt with more firmly,” he adds.
His particular trademark is using humour to relieve tension and stamp his personality on a game. “I don’t think we’ve met before but I’m the referee, not you,” he told one errant player. “I’m straighter than that one,” he quipped after a particularly crooked throw-in at a line-out. His comments are all caught on the microphones and miniature cameras that professional referees now wear.
Owens took up refereeing at 16 after his playing days ended in humiliation: he missed a match-winning conversion in front of the posts in a school game.
In one of his first matches in charge, a team of policemen walked off the pitch, accusing him of bias. But his subsequent success is obvious to any visitor to his large, modern bungalow in the village of Pontyberem, two miles from his childhood home in Mynyddcerrig. It is festooned with medals, trophies, framed shirts, cartoons, photographs and international caps — he has won 67 in all. Outside, an expensive BMW 640d sits in the drive with its personalised numberplate: NI6 REF.
With success has come opportunity. Owens now uses his celebrity to combat homophobia. He speaks openly at schools, clubs and public meetings about his own experience. He has become a role model to countless young men and women struggling with their sexuality, and receives hundreds of messages from them — or, occasionally, their parents. He has written an autobiography, Half Time, that he hopes will “provide comfort and inspiration for people who are having to face up to some of the problems that were such a burden to me.” But curiously, though he has a partner, he hesitates to endorse gay marriage, preferring civil partnerships. “I was brought up with Sunday school and chapel,” he explains. “To me marriage is a man and woman.”
Where Owens leads others are beginning to follow. He is offering discreet advice to three rugby players — one professional and two semi-professionals — and to a football referee. Gareth Thomas, the former Wales captain, acknowledged his homosexuality in 2009. Sam Stanley, an England Rugby Sevens player, came out last summer. Owens is sure that there are many other gay rugby players, and argues that the only thing now holding them back is their reluctance to admit their homosexuality to themselves. “They can’t accept they’re gay. They’re fighting themselves like I was fighting against it and not wanting to be gay for years. But you can’t blame rugby and say it’s not safe [to come out]. It is safe. That’s been proven.”
The ultimate proof will come today. Owens will prepare as he always does. Beneath his uniform he will wear the lucky Superman boxer shorts given to him by his three young cousins. Just before going down the tunnel he will listen to the hymn How Great Thou Art on his iPod. While the Australian and New Zealand national anthems are played he will probably look skywards for a few seconds and think of his mother, who died six years ago. Then he will blow his whistle to start the game — the first openly gay referee to officiate at the ultimate showpiece of what is supposedly the most macho sport on Earth.