Nigel Owens’ sexuality is irrelevant – and his business alone. One day society might evolve to a point where such matters fail to make the news. But there is surely no need to be so politically correct that we ignore the breakthrough of a World Cup final being presided over by a gay referee who almost took his own life before coming out.
Saturday’s clash between New Zealand and Australia is not about the match officials. A final never is. Yet the Owens story, set out in a BBC profile entitled ‘True to Myself,’ adds a salutary human dimension to rugby’s greatest occasion.
It adds humour, too, and a touch of cabaret. On the field as well as off, Owens has addressed his sexuality with a sharp comic sense. In the film you can watch him overseeing a wonky line-out and shouting: “I’m straighter than that one.”
To come out, in 2007, he leapt out of a closet on Jonathan Davies’ TV show before dancing to ‘I Am What I Am.’
If you want tales of adversity overcome in sport, picture Owens, then 24, overdosing on paracetamol and whiskey and passing out on a Welsh mountain with an unused shotgun by his side. Picture the police helicopter ride that saved him with 20 minutes to spare.
Ref-ing a World Cup final is hard enough already without being a symbol. But Owens is not shy about representing those who have transcended ignorance and cruelty. When he escaped his own secret, eight years ago, he asked himself: “Nobody’s out in the macho world of rugby. Am I going to be able to carry on?”
Now he adds: “Nobody should have to make that decision.”
Homophobically abused in a recent England game at Twickenham, Owens continues to confront prejudice and bullying at a time when newspaper reports of three Premier League players preparing to come out have created a predictable kerfuffle without, yet, an outcome.
Owens’ pride extends to his background, his roots, where his declaration never seems to have been a problem. Bunting adorns the streets where he grew up, in celebration of his World Cup final appointment, and this week he tweeted:
“Never ever forget where u have come from. Am a council estate boy born & bred & proud of it. Mynyddcerrig nice touch.”
The final is about the teams and the players but this time the choice of referee adds depth and meaning to the game. He is there above all, for his professional abilities.
In the BBC film, Gareth Jenkins, the former Wales manager, says: “He’s got a clarity and an ability to make every player on that field realise he’s the person in charge. They’re quite unique qualities.”
To impress that lesson on Chris Robshaw, who was arguing with him in an England game, Owens simply said: “Christopher!”
Robshaw then left him alone. [Telegraph]