(Reuters) - Affable Welsh referee Nigel Owens has gained iconic status in world rugby as he stands within touching distance of a unique milestone, but his influence stretches far beyond the pitch as one of the few openly gay participants in the sport.
Owens’ easy on-pitch manner and expert reading of the game have made him a popular figure with players and fans alike, just as his consistency in performance has seen him officiate in more tests than any other referee.
His 98 matches have taken him within sight of becoming the first official to manage a century of tests and cements his place in history as one of rugby’s foremost whistle-men.
But Owens, who turns 49 on June 18, has also played an important role in breaking down barriers for gay sportsmen and women, coming out in 2007 in what was seen as a brave decision at a time when doing so, especially in rugby, was still very much taboo.
“I didn’t come out to be a role model, I had to do it for my own mental health and well-being,” he told Rugby World magazine. “It’s nice to see a lot of people commenting that I have helped people, sons and daughters.
“If I can help other people who are going through difficult times in accepting who you are, by speaking openly about my experiences, because I have been in that situation myself, I will.”
On the pitch, Owens’ ability to defuse tension between teams with a quip or a stern word are as impressive as his eye on the breakdown or rolling maul.
“Some referees want to be too pally and friendly with players. I’m good mates with plenty of players, but on that field they’re not your mates, you’re there to referee a game of rugby and deal with situations appropriately.”
Having cut his teeth in international rugby on the Sevens circuit in 2002, a year later he took charge of his first 15-man test in a second-tier clash between Portugal and Georgia.
Seventeen years, on he is the longest serving member of World Rugby’s elite international panel.
“I’ve never been one for refereeing just to get numbers. I referee because I enjoy it. If I’m good enough, whatever level I am at, I will carry on refereeing. It would be something special to get to 100 (tests), a great honour and a privilege.”
Amid all the glamour of professional rugby, he admits that at heart he still has a passion for the grassroots game.
“There are European Cup finals, the 2015 World Cup final, that epic South Africa-New Zealand game in 2013, England-France on Six Nations Super Saturday in 2015 … all of those have been very special.
“The one that really stands out for me though is a Pencoed U12s game. The kids didn’t know I was coming, so to see their faces brighten up and jaws drop when I walked into the changing rooms was the best thing for me.”
Away from rugby, Owens has also co-presented the Welsh-language television programme Jonathan and Bwrw’r Bar (Hit the Bar) and hosted the quiz show, Munud i Fynd (A Minute to Go).
Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Hugh Lawson