Six lessons from Nigel Owens, rugby referee

Mrs McClure, Headmistress

8th October 2021

Many people don’t know that rugby is one of my passions in life and I have been lucky enough to be attend several internationals, one of which was refereed by Nigel Owens. So, I was ridiculously excited that he was one of the keynote speakers at the Independent Association of Prep Schools’ conference I attended last week. Now retired, Nigel refereed 100 international matches and maintains the world record for most test matches refereed. As the first openly gay international rugby referee, Nigel has had a remarkably influential career and for me stands out as someone who has universal respect from players, administrators and fans. He is probably the only referee to have his own compendium of ‘Greatest Decisions’, and to be liked, admired and respected across the game. 

Here are six things I took away from his talk:

  1. Shouting is not control. Nigel is not a ‘shouter’ and gives the impression that he actually likes the players he is refereeing. He has a calmness and a sense of absolute integrity that creates its own aura of authority. 
  2. We need to value the individual. Nigel found it almost impossible to come to terms with his sexuality and went through a period of deep depression, almost leading to suicide, before telling his Mum. He says that there are some things over which we have absolutely no control: the colour of our skin, our sexuality amongst others. Nigel believes that we should teach children as young as possible that we are all equal and nobody is better than anybody else. We should teach them to cherish individuality, including their own. 
  3. We should speak kindly to each other. Part of Nigel’s initial inability to accept his sexuality was due to years of listening to ‘banter’, supposedly jokey but still very damaging. ‘Banter’ hurts. We should teach the young people in our care this as soon as we can.  
  4. We can’t be bystanders. He was badly bullied at secondary school, to the extent that he would try to avoid school wherever possible. This stopped practically overnight when other pupils stepped in to help him. He believes that saying or doing nothing when people are wronged is not acceptable. He says that, ‘the only way we will make a better society is by people standing up and calling out totally unacceptable behaviour. If everybody says nothing, those people won’t go away, they will continue to say horrible things’.  
  5. Follow your dreams. After retiring from refereeing, Nigel now has two farm sites he owns in Wales with 50 beautiful Hereford cattle which he farms with his partner. His first dream was to be a farmer when he was 8 and he planned for this after refereeing. Nigel’s ambitions about appearing on “The Antiques Roadshow” have yet to be fulfilled; parents can ask me about why this is a good thing when children can’t overhear! 
  6. You can get through the tough times. Nigel has battled depression, anxiety and eating disorders throughout his life – though we rugby fans never realised! With good friends, an understanding family and kindness to yourself you can get through the storms and high seas – and possibly be a little more compassionate and wiser as a result.  

I feel very privileged to have heard him speak. Nigel Owens mastered his chosen profession in a way that I would like to master mine. I really hope that I can use some of his wisdom to guide and help all those in my care.  

Mrs Helen McClure 

Picture Credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile