BRENDAN O'BRIEN: To referee by rulebook or circumstance?

Nigel Owens

Podcasts really are the gifts that keep on giving.

Conveniently cut for a world where we’re all so consumed by our busy little lives, these infinite chunks of audio offer a readymade respite from the maelstrom. 

And all at the touch of a button or, to be more technologically accurate, a smartphone swipe.

The very best possess the ability to absorb completely, to relegate the noise of work and traffic and everything else to the background, and none does it so effectively and effortlessly as the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, which has given us over 3,000 episodes and celebrated its 75th birthday last year. 

Where else would you learn that Kelsey Grammer, that most erudite and cultured of thesps, voted for Donald Trump? 

That David Beckham has roughly as many pairs of football boots as his wife Victoria has shoes, or that U2’s ‘With Or Without You’ is one of Noel Gallagher’s favourite tunes.

There’s an obvious added interest on this column’s part when a sportsperson sits down with Kirsty Young of a Sunday morning.

The chat between the Scottish host and Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens in February of last year was especially worthy of the detour from life’s other diversions.

Owens is an interesting character, one whose station as a professional ref is but a small segment of a story and a life that has many fascinating strands, but his take on his role in the middle of the park was a good enough starting point for Young when the pair met.

Young likes her rugby and, like so many of us, has been taken by Owens’ rather unique style of officiating, which tends to lend his games a flow unlike any others. 

To referee by rulebook or circumstance?

The presenter asked him about that and, in particular, how he balances the black and white of the rulebook with the grey area that is his ‘game sense’.

“Learning the laws, knowing the laws of the game, and knowing when to blow the whistle, that’s the easy job to refereeing,” Owens explained. 

“The secret then is knowing when not to blow it and that is the balance that you need to get right if you want to be a top referee and remain at the top.

“A feel for the game and an empathy for what the players are trying to achieve, but also setting your boundaries out, of what is acceptable and what is not. 

"It’s not always easy to get it, even if you have the knack for doing that. Sometimes in games you let something go that you should have blown and sometimes you blow and think, ‘I should have let that go’.

“It’s not always easy. It is a challenge, but if you get that right, and two positive teams, then you have the ingredients for having a flowing game.”

Two positive teams is rarely a given, of course, but the number of factors that can influence any game, and any referee’s interpretation of it, are so many as to appear inexhaustible. 

Owens himself has come in for criticism, with Ireland’s Six Nations game in Paris last February among the list of grievances.

Ireland battered the French defensive line in the closing minutes of that tie, as they fought to rescue the win, but Owens never deigned to intervene, even when France clearly infringed at least twice.

It’s not the first time he has appeared to swallow the whistle when the game was in its final, decisive throes.

Kevin McLaughlin
Kevin McLaughlin

Former Leinster and Ireland forward Kevin McLaughlin declared on ‘The Hard Yards’ podcast that the referee had been guilty of refereeing the circumstance — not wishing to decide the game with one decision — and not the game itself. 

He wasn’t alone in that theory, but Owens isn’t the first of his ilk to have faced the same accusation.

This last week has seen two standout decisions in other codes. The first was the highly controversial challenge on Mohamed Salah by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final. 

This was either a premeditated act of harm borrowed from an advanced martial arts manual or an unfortunate consequence of the Liverpool player’s decision to tussle with a man not known for holding back.

Was the Serbian match official Milorad Mazic guilty of ‘refereeing the circumstance’ in failing to at least book the Real Madrid captain, or just using what Owens would recognise as his common sense and recognising that there was nothing to prove this was anything other than a regular foul with an irregular outcome?

So, to Pearse Stadium a day later and Kilkenny’s Luke Scanlon poleaxed by a woefully cynical and dangerous frontal shoulder by Galway defender Daithí Burke. 

The rules would suggest a red card was warranted. Referee Fergal Horan felt yellow was fine. 

A common-sense approach, some would say... maybe even some of the same people who screamed for Ramos’s head.

Is it any wonder so few of us dare dip our toes into the murky world of officiating?


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