Nobody gets a better view of what’s going on in international rugby than referee Nigel Owens.
As the Six Nations kicks off with defending champions England looking for consecutive titles for the first time in more than 15 years, we spoke to the 45-year-old about what to expect, how the game has changed and what football could learn from rugby.
Rugby’s most noted referee has said the Lion’s tour means this year’s Six Nations will be peppered with “extra spice”.
Owens reckons there will be “a few surprises” in Warren Gatland’s squad for New Zealand if some under-the-radar players can hit form at the tournament.
And the 45-year-old said the introduction of bonus points, which he has championed for years, should lead to “more quality, attacking rugby”.
Under the rules teams win an extra point for scoring four or more tries or for losing within seven points, meaning players will “go for it” and try to play champagne stuff.
It’s 10 years since the Welsh official made his Six Nations and World Cup debuts and he says the game is now “quicker, faster and more difficult to ref”.
Now, as an MBE and one of the game’s most respected figures, he said: “It has really grown globally since 2007 when I was a very inexperienced referee.
“I suppose I was a wildcard back then. I was bottom of the tree, but I hit good form and now a decade on I’m at the top. Now it’s about maintaining that.
“We’ve also got better on player safety, you can see there’s a lot more awareness around things like concussions nowadays.”
Owens is well-known as a snappy purveyor of zinging one-liners (“the football stadium is 500 yards that way”) when he feels players are acting up.
He joked he probably would’ve “given more red cards in the Premier League this season than I have in the past 20 years”.
Although rugby “can’t take the moral high ground” he thinks football could draw some lessons from its rougher, tougher cousin.
Owens said: “What could help football is looking back after the game and citing players if it’s something that needs to be dealt with, like diving.
“If a player questioned my decision I certainly wouldn’t allow the whole team to crowd around me – we really don’t need that in the sport.
“I hear from football fans that’s one of the things that really annoys them.”
The Television Match Official (TMO) is a bit of a double-edged sword that can both help and put pressure on officials, according to Owens.
He said: “Sometimes you can’t get decisions right without it, but it’s used too much and is far from perfect.
“Every 50/50 is now replayed and suddenly everyone in the crowd has an opinion. You can hear it happening.
“Nowadays if you’re going to give someone a yellow card and the crowd doesn’t want it then they get on at you.
“But if you’re going to give a yellow and the stadium is baying for it, then people say ‘he’s been influenced by the crowd’.”
He urged caution over calls for the tech to be transferred to football to help against dodgy offsides and illegal goals: “Rugby has a lot more natural stoppages. Part of what makes football attractive is that it’s always moving.
“Maybe teams could have one challenge they could refer to the TMO per game, any more would be too disruptive.”