There are many things Nigel Owens is going to miss about refereeing the Guinness Six Nations: the pre-match butterflies, the camaraderie with players and the ‘I was there’ moments he was privileged to witness for 13 years.
But there is one luxury the former Test match referee will be able to indulge in this year: “I will be able to jump up and down and cheer,” he says.
“I will also be able to shout and moan at the ref with millions of other people.”
When Owens announced in December that he was retiring from international rugby, he was showered with tributes traditionally reserved for legendary players – a testament to his longevity and, of course, his personality.
Like the Guinness Six Nations itself, Owens’ Carmarthenshire accent and waspish wit have helped bring warmth to the depths of winter. No home has been complete without Owens yelling ‘roll away’ through the TV screen each February and March, remonstrating with forwards at scrum re-sets and generally laying down the law.
He has been in the middle 21 times in the Guinness Six Nations, at least once in every Championship since 2007.
He has refereed Andy Farrell and Owen Farrell, Alessandro Troncon and Antoine Dupont. He’s seen Italy at the Stadio Flaminio, England win the Grand Slam and even Dan Cole score a try.
So, as this year’s Championship swings into view, Owens can be forgiven for feeling slightly strange as he contemplates his first year without a whistle around his neck since 2006.
“The closer I get to the Six Nations, the more I realise how much I am going to miss being out there,” he said.
“It is the first time not refereeing since 2007 but I have been involved in the Six Nations as a touch judge and other roles since 2003.
“It is going to be very different and very strange this year, that’s for sure.”
It must be said, Owens’ days in the middle are far from over. He is still refereeing in the Guinness PRO14 and at club level in Wales, extending a professional career that started 20 years ago.
Since presiding over London Irish and Piacenza in January 2001, Owens has taken charge of 100 Test matches, a World Cup final and six Heineken Champions Cup finals.
But it will always be the Guinness Six Nations where he’s most remembered
“My first game was in 2007 at Twickenham when England played Italy,” he said.
“It was my first big game, I had done a couple of Test matches before that such as Italy v Australia, but the Six Nations is different. And I don’t think you become an international referee until you are in charge of a Six Nations game. That is when you know you have arrived at the very top.
“It was very exciting. The fact it was Twickenham meant my dad could come down. He had never been to a Test match and he’d never been to England before, let alone Twickenham.
“I don’t think I ever got very nervous, more butterflies from excitement rather than worrying about something. But I do remember feeling slightly more anxious for that one because I knew this was the first big one. The eyes of millions would be watching.
“That first match was special and then I’ll always remember the Grand Slam match in 2016 between France and England in Paris.
“But the one that stands out to me is England and France at Twickenham in 2015 on Super Saturday. It was probably the best day of rugby there has ever been, I think.
“You had Wales winning in Italy first of all, and it looked like Wales would be champions. Then Ireland beat Scotland they were champions for a couple of hours and then England almost snatched it right at the end against France in what was a brilliant game of rugby at Twickenham. Ireland got it in the end but that game stands out to me.
“I can’t remember the score but it was back and forth. Luckily in 2015, I was at the peak of my fitness leading into the World Cup that year so it was not a problem running up and down the pitch!”
Owens may be able to enjoy a few more games in the comfort of his own armchair this year, but he is far from finished with Rugby’s Greatest Championship.
Last week, he opened the Virtual Launch of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, while he has been working with Wales and refereeing some contact sessions in training. He will also be in front of the camera doing punditry for S4C.
“Everyone knows I’m a Welshman, so I’m a Welsh supporter. But what I can do now is say who I think will win and give an opinion. I can answer questions on refereeing and what we’re seeing,” he says.
So, who does he think will win?
“If I had to put my head on the chopping block, I would probably say France.
“I think it will be between them and England and I would maybe edge it to France. The fact they play at Twickenham could sneak it to England but I have a sneaky feeling for France. In Antoine Dupont, they have, in my opinion, the best player in the world.
“They have been quiet for ten years and so it is nice to see. My last Six Nations match was France v England in Paris last year and it was a great game of rugby. I knew there was something different about them then and they have built and built ever since.”
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France open their campaign with an away trip to Italy but there won’t be any fans at the Stadio Olimpico, or in any other venue this weekend. It’s a sight that still takes some getting used to, even ten months into the pandemic.
“For the players and officials, it will be different but they have also had the chance to get used to it,” Owens added.
“Not having 80,000 in a stadium shouting at you will be very different. Maybe it is the first time a referee has not been booed!”
Owens’ absence is not the only thing that will make the 2021 Championship very different. But, like so many, his excitement is still through the roof.
“I was still a fan when I was refereeing but I had a job to do, so it is a different type of enjoyment and excitement this year. With what has been going on in the world for the last ten to 12 months, it will give everyone something to look forward to.
“It is that time of the year after Christmas when everyone has a bit of a downer in January and, more so this year, it is the best pick-me-up there is.”