Nigel Owens is the most capped referee in international rugby, with 71 games under his belt. Off the field, he is a rugby chat show host on and has his own quiz show – both in Welsh.
He is also rugby’s first openly gay personality, who speaks frankly about his struggles with self-acceptance, bulimia and a suicide attempt in the autobiography Half Time.
Owens credits his traditional Welsh upbringing – in a village of 150 people, 90 percent of whom spoke Welsh – with making him the man he became.
“A lot of people think life is what you make it, and I think life makes you.”
As a boy, he says he loved to sing at chapel and school and he loved rugby. He played as a full back, but says he wasn’t particularly gifted, drawing unfavourable comparisons to the Welsh rugby star JPR Williams.
That, along with a school teacher’s encouragement, was “the trigger to go and pick up the whistle” he says.
According to Owens, a good ref knows when to stay out of the game.
“The easy part of refereeing is picking up the law book and learning the rules. The difficult part of refereeing is knowing when not to blow the whistle.
“If you get the balance right of applying the laws when they need to be applied, but also knowing when you don’t need to apply them, then you can help contribute to the flow of the game.”
It is always the players who make the game, Owens says.
“A poor referee can spoil a good game of rugby, but no matter how good a referee you are, you can’t make a bad game of rugby good.”
Owens fondly remembers officiating at what some consider the greatest international rugby game ever - the championship decider between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park in 2013.
“Which was the most wonderful game of rugby, but the credit of the rugby that day has to go down to the players, I only played a very small part in that.”
He says he has deep regrets about his attempted suicide at 26.
“It’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life, what I put my mum and dad through.”
“I left them a note that said I couldn’t carry on any more, they found me six or seven hours later by police helicopter and airlifted me to hospital. Another 20 minutes and it would have been too late to save me.”
After Owens went public with his revelation, people with similar stories began to get in touch with him – and he reconsidered his initial reluctance to write a memoir.
One in particular – from a mother – convinced him to open up.
“Her son had read my story online. He had tried to take his own life at 16 and about two months later he’d read my story and he plucked up the courage to tell his parents ‘This is why I tried to take my own life’.’”
“They were fine and told him, don’t worry.”
Owens hopes his book will help many other young men who are struggling.
“I hope it encourages other people to be who they are, and be themselves.”
Nigel Owens will speak at Auckland Grammar School on 20 October as part of Auckland Writers Festival.