Nigel Owens is the rare official who, at any given match, could have more renown than some of the players on the field. Andrew Keh of The New York Times reports.
Nigel Owens was walking in Suva, Fiji, earlier this summer, when he heard an all-too-familiar refrain.
"This is not soccer!" a stranger called out to him on the street.
Owens could only laugh. He had first uttered those words himself while refereeing a rugby match seven years ago, and they have been trailing him ever since.
Delivered at the time as a reprimand to a petulant player, the phrase has become a personal calling card of sorts for Owens, a tidy encapsulation of the stern-but-funny style that has made him rugby's most respected, and most recognisable, referee.
The line and countless others have been preserved in numerous greatest hits-type clips that together have tallied millions of views on YouTube — and now get repeated to Owens on the street.
"That's probably what I'm best known for," Owens said, shaking his head and laughing in an interview last month here, where he was officiating a World Cup warm-up match. "It's unbelievable."
Owens, in this way, is an exceedingly rare figure in world sports: a celebrity referee, one who at any given match could have more renown than some of the players on the same field; who has his most memorable lines printed on T-shirts and coffee mugs; who has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter and gets recognised by strangers in archipelagic nations 15,000km from the rural village in Wales where he grew up.
The fame has emerged from disparate wells for Owens, 48, each one having a multiplying effect on his profile.
He is a fixture on Welsh television, hosting not just rugby programs, but also a variety show, a hidden camera prank show and several others in recent years.
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He writes a weekly column for the Western Mail, often veering well outside the subject of sports. (A sample headline: "The Nigel Owens column: 'Some vegans go too far with their extreme view.'")
He is an advocate and symbol for gay rights, having come out publicly in his early 30s, when no other person in the top levels of rugby had done so.
Now, with retirement in view, Owens will get one last appearance on the game's biggest stage when he referees this year's Rugby World Cup, his fourth, starting Friday in Japan. Organisers already have announced that Owens will officiate the opening match.
There has long been a sentiment among some in sports that referees should stay anonymous and mostly out of mind. Others say that sentiment is outdated, with a confluence of factors elevating the profile of referees: a microscopic approach, aided by video technology, to assessing officiating decisions; the insatiable appetites of fans for more information, fed by a surplus of voices online; and that international rugby referees have worn microphones during matches for more than a decade.
In these circumstances, Owens has excelled, making him in some ways the quintessential 21st-century referee.
Stuart Barnes, 56, a former rugby player who works as an analyst for Sky Sports, used the concept of "flow" as a sort of catchall metric for the overall proficiency of an official.
For example, referees who officiate with a strict interpretation of rugby's Byzantine rule book, blowing their whistles for everything, disrupt a game's flow. So, too, do referees who lean on video replays instead of having the confidence to trust their own eyes, referees who can't keep insubordinate players in check, and referees who don't communicate smoothly with their fellow officials. Owens, Barnes said, avoids these traps.
"It's a complicated game," he said, "and Owens has gotten nearer to mastering flow and empathy than anybody."
Owens' defining trait, though, has been his rhetorical facility and wit, which appear often in the form of impeccably timed, genially sarcastic jibes delivered in a gentle Welsh lilt.
In one of his most famous incidents, for instance, he stopped play in a 2010 game in Wales after a nasty scuffle and summoned all 30 players to form a circle around him. He said he would ignore what had happened in the fight and penalise no one, on the condition that the incident not be repeated.
"It ends there, is that clear?" he said. "You're adults. You'll be treated like it, as long as you behave like it."
Pundits have accused Owens of grandstanding, of playing to the television audience. Owens dismissed these critiques as coming from people who were hungry for attention themselves.
Everything he says and does on the field, he said, occurs naturally in service of the players.
"I sometimes come off the field and people will say: 'You've gone viral for that comment. It was really funny,'" he said. "And I'm thinking, 'What comment?'"
Owens grew up in Mynyddcerrig, a rural village in Wales, and today lives just a couple of miles from there. His first tastes of performing for an audience came in church, singing and reading scripture, he said, and, later, while singing in a local pub for spare change.
Humour was woven into his upbringing. He idolised Welsh comedian Ifan Gruffydd, memorising his jokes to retell later. As a teenager, when Owens was just starting to referee, he also was trying his hand as a stand-up comedian in local clubs and performing in school plays.
"When Nigel was around, people were having fun," said Amanda Rees, a television executive who was friends with Owens in secondary school. "He was a performer from the very beginning, loved being onstage, just in a gregarious way, not in an attention-seeking way. He just loved an audience."
Owens's professional paths — rugby and entertainment — grew almost simultaneously, and in parallel lanes.
Elen Rhys, content commissioner for the Welsh television channel S4C, said it was an openness, honesty and "common touch" that made Owens so successful as a television host.
For example, Owens used the Welsh television show Jonathan to come out publicly, emerging from an actual closet on the set to raucous applause. At the time, Owens said, he was worried about how the rugby world would react. But more recently he has felt that sports have been "unfairly criticised" for being slower than the rest of society to accept gay people, pointing to himself and the welcome he received as evidence.
In his mind, high-profile instances of discrimination in rugby — like the recent homophobic social media posts from the Australian player Israel Folau — were the acts of individuals who did not represent the whole.
"If I came out, would the rugby community accept me as gay? I honestly didn't know," Owens said. "But we now know what the answer is. So that's why I say nobody can turn around and say rugby won't be accepting."
Since his announcement, Owens also has opened up about his former struggles with bulimia, steroids and depression, and he has recounted in detail the time he tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills. In 1996, police discovered him unconscious on a mountainside near his home with a shotgun by his side.
"We all feel as if we know him, like he's one of us," Rhys said.
For the moment, Owens said he was looking forward to a quiet retirement, which he imagines will happen within the next year or two. After years of spending hundreds of nights on the road, he wants to be able to have more time with his partner, a schoolteacher in his hometown, and his father, who is 83.
Owens has bought a plot of land near where he grew up, and he plans to start a farm. He has a number of Hereford cattle arriving shortly after the World Cup.
But before that, he wants to savour his final tournament.
"You're a long time retired when you're finished refereeing," he said. "There's nothing more for me to prove, nothing more to achieve, really. What I've got to achieve now is my enjoyment of it."
Written by: Andrew Keh
Photographs by: Rebecca Marshall, Nick Cote
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES