Nigel Owens has condemned the online harassment experienced by contemporary rugby referees as “appalling and completely intolerable,” in response to Wayne Barnes announcing his retirement.
Barnes, a prominent English referee, officially concluded his remarkable career last Thursday, a mere week after he was subjected to death threats in the aftermath of the World Cup final.
Speaking to Mail Online, Owens said: “Online abuse is unfortunately something the referees of today have to deal with,
“It’s the world we live in but disgraceful and totally unacceptable.
“It’s not going to change unless we change the rules on social media and make people accountable for their words and actions. It’s a toxic place and very, very unfortunate.
“I lived in that world and still do now. I got homophobic comments so I know exactly what it’s like.”
Owens added: “Wayne will quite rightly go down in history as one of the all-time great referees. His contribution to the game on and off the field is a great credit to him both as a referee and a person. What better way to bow out than in a World Cup final?
“He’s been at the top of his game for a long time now and I always say you become a better referee when you retire! All credit to him for wanting to support the referees of the future.
“It’s something I work on in my role now in Wales. There is a culture of keyboard warriors out there. Social media is toxic.
“Sometimes you wonder whether it’s worth being on there. I think everyone – not just in rugby – can think about the impact sending a message on social media can have.”
NIGEL OWENS DREAM XV:
Fullback: Israel Folau (Australia)
Owens said: “For me, it’s nip and tuck between Halfpenny and Folau, next to nothing to choose between them. Leigh is brilliant because under the high ball and with his kicking at goal under pressure. He may not always break the line when running but puts his body on the line in defence and is a top-notch match-winner.
“But I go for Folau – only just, I should stress – because of his ability to seemingly beat his man every time he gets the ball in his hand. He’s such an exciting player and like Leigh he is one of the best under the high ball.
“It’s a toss of a coin for me… and it’s come down in Folau’s favour.”
Winger: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Owens said: “How can you fail to be impressed when watching Hogg play. He’s so exciting as he burst into that line and, of course, was named Six Nations player of the tournament.
“I know he’s a full-back for Scotland, but he is so quick and direct he could easily play on the wing. He reminds me a bit of Shane Williams with some of the things he does.
“When you see who is on the other wing in my team, you’ll see how they would work brilliantly in tandem.”
Outside-centre: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
Owens said: “Not only is he one of the greatest centres in the history of rugby union but he’s a fantastic man off the field as well. O’Driscoll has been a wonderful ambassador for the sport and a real leader. He always respected referees and set the right example for others to follow.
“A legend of the game who conducted himself superbly, on and off the pitch.”
Inside-centre: Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)
Owens said: “He’s another brilliant player and after every game, win or lose, he would come up and give me a hug. Ma’a has always found time at after-match functions or at breakfast if we’ve been staying at the same hotel to come over and have a chat.
“What a player, mind, too. One of the stalwarts of the New Zealand side for so many years.”
Winger: Shane Williams (Wales)
Owens said: “When people ask me who is the best player I have refereed it’s pretty much an impossible task to pick one because I’ve been lucky enough to take charge of so many greats.
“But if I’m pushed, I would pick Shane for what he achieved after coming from football at 17 or 18 years of age.
“He was in the mould of Gerald Davies in how he left defenders gasping for air as he beat them with those dazzling sidesteps. Nobody would fancy defending against a back three of Shane, Hogg and Folau, I can tell you that.”