He's widely regarded as one of the greatest rugby players of all time but referee Nigel Owens has another title for former All Black Richie McCaw - one of the hardest in the game.

Owens made the comment in a column for walesonline.co.uk in response to former England player James Haskell saying that rugby has gone soft following a high tackle penalty while playing for Wasps a fortnight ago.

Owens made the argument that rugby is cleaner than it was 30 to 40 years ago but that doesn't mean the players aren't tougher.

"The impact of collisions can be tremendous and the courage shown in every game never ceases to amaze," Owens said.

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"Let's think of someone like Richie McCaw, capped 148 times by New Zealand despite playing in the most attritional of positions where every game he would be required to throw himself into harm's way, perhaps by locking himself over possession and soaking up the attention of immensely powerful forwards who would do everything they could to wipe him off the ball.

"That's what I call a genuine hard-man," he said.

Owens also praised the toughness of Welsh flanker Martyn Williams and winger Shane Williams.

"[Williams] One of the smallest men to play rugby who took the hits from the big men yet rose to his feet and got on with the game, bringing his own incredible crowd-pleasing skill to proceedings," Owens wrote.

"Shane had remarkable courage, as did McCaw and Williams," he said.

"Those three didn't need to venture outside the rules to prove anything," Owens said.