Review: The Final Whistle by Nigel Owens
Nigel Owens is a one-off, a top flight rugby referee who became the best in the world and remains one of the game’s most popular ambassadors.
It’s a rare thing to to able to be able to assert authority with a smile, and of course his humour, both on and off the pitch has become a hallmark of his refereeing style and of the man himself.
Little wonder that some of his off-the-cuff remarks have become T-shirt slogans, “It’s not soccer” being just one of them.
Of all the sayings and stories in this warm and affable memoir there’s one that stands out rather. It derives from Owens’ one and only visit to take charge of a game in Gilfach Goch.
Towards the end of the second half one of the players asked him if he could tell him when there were five minutes remaining and indeed repeated the request a little while later.
So when they were six minutes from the end of the game the player was duly informed, who then thanked the referee in turn before running off into the crowd:
Suddenly, a couple of policemen appeared, wearing those pointed helmets, and started racing after him. He knew they were there to arrest him after the game, and was legging it first. It was like a scene from the old Benny Hill show. One of the policemen was a bit overweight, his helmet slipping, he was having to put his hand up to make sure it stayed on his head whilst running as hard as he could. This player was quick, match-tuned, in his rugby kit...
This wasn’t the first time the police had been involved in a game officiated by Owens, although the other occasion was far from funny. As a ‘teenage refereeing rookie’ he was in charge of a match between the Dyfed Powys Police B team and Cefneithin.
After a run of decisions against the police they left the pitch in a huff and had to be talked into finishing the game by being threatened with eviction from the league.
Nigel Owens has been in charge of games at all levels of course, from slosh-in-the-mud grassroots games to the top of the tree, being the World Cup final.
It wasn’t an easy journey for the boy from a council house in Mynyddcerrig. He wrestled with his sexuality and at one point explored chemical castration as an option.
There were periods when he took took many steroids or found comfort in eating too much and other passages in his life when bulimia affected him badly.
At its nadir was the night he armed himself with pills, a bottle of whisky and a shotgun and walked up a nearby hill intending to end his life.
Had it not been for the heat sensors of a police helicopter he might have died alone that night on Mynydd-y-Ddraenen, the appropriately named Mountain of Thorns.
Coming out wasn’t easy, worried as he was by the reaction of the macho rugby world.
It was in the main a story of acceptance, even though he has faced some homophobic barbs and poison pen letters, not to mention death threats following some of his on-field decisions.
Add to that the hundreds of thousands of air miles, the need to be in physical nick at least as good as the players on the pitch and one gets a picture of the rigours of refereeing.
And even when he was accepted as the best in the world he still struggled to get a contract with the WRU!
But not only did he survive his suicide attempt but positively thrived, officiating at four World Cups, taking charge of more Six Nations games than anyone else, blowing the whistle at seven European Cup Finals and presiding over some of the best games of rugby ever played, such as the high-octane try-fest that was the New Zealand victory over South Africa in Johannesburg in 2013.
He has also had huge success as media pundit, as TV presenter, star of adverts and his warmth and affability always shining through.
His appearance on Desert Island Discs brought his story to millions of people, many of those noting his integrity and honesty, not to mention his fierce passion for the game.
There are plenty of great little stories peppered throughout this book, from dropping his steak in front of the Queen to the rituals he follows when preparing for big games, such as donning Superman boxer shorts to listening to inspiring playlists including the stirring hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’
The book closes as Nigel Owens opens new chapters in his life. He becomes a farmer, looking after a pedigree herd of Herefords near the home he shares in Pontyberem with his partner Barrie. Together they are exploring the route to adopting children, a process in tandem with building a new home together.
It is pellucidly clear that here is a man who has love aplenty to give and this in no small way explains why people love him in return. In our house he’s a hero to us all and my wife and daughters call him Nigel as if we know him.
It’s something many people clearly share, that feeling that here is someone with no side to him, as they say: an open book, a referee who has been loved by players even when they’ve been on the losing side. Yes, the losing side.
Or, in legendary All Blacks No.10 Dan Carter’s words here is ‘an incredible character whose sheer love of rugby union always came across loud and clear.’
As does his love for his parents, and for the west Wales community where he grew up and so much more. Which explains why this book is so quietly uplifting, so far removed from the usual celebrity-memoir-vacuousness, and why it’ll be in many a Christmas stocking one predicts.
The Final Whistle by Nigel Owens is published by Y Lolfa and is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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