Getting an interview with Nigel Owens MBE, is just slightly more difficult than trying to get an audience with Pope Francis, such is the popularity and demand the man from Pontyberem attracts.
At the world rugby Conference in London at which he spoke on the panel discussing “respect for match officials in rugby-a tradition worth maintaining” everyone wanted to meet him, say hello and shake his hand, he greeted every single one of them with a smile and the same genuine kindness and down to earth manner.
I was covering the conference, so was in a unique position to notice that everyone who met him that day, walked away with a grin on their face, that is something pretty special, and this was not a one-off, last year he spoke about homophobia and sexism in sport at the London School of Economics, a theatre full of lively students who had been “hydrating” and reviving up in the students union bar minutes before, fell totally silent as Nigel spoke, you could hear the proverbial pin drop.
Last week he spent so much time dealing with interview requests at the conference, he ended up being late for filming scheduled later the same day, but that is Nigel “all over” he makes time for everyone.
So much has been written about Nigel, and his life story to date, by much more celebrated journalists than me, and indeed by the man himself in his moving autobiography “Half Time”
He told me the first international match he remembers watching was Scotland v Wales on television, in 1977, the match that graced us with a wonderful Phil Bennett try under the posts at Murrayfield, after a length of the field move.
” I was six years old and had a leather rugby ball, the farmer who owned the field at the back of our house, had two donkeys, I can still remember their names, Chocolate and fudge” he told me.
” I remember pretending to be Phil Bennett, and I used to side step the donkeys, and try to kick the ball over them and run round and catch it”
Nigel was brought up in Mynddcerrig, a village in west wales whose name means “stone mountain”
“Mynddcerrig was not a traditional Welsh rugby village but it had a soccer team and my Dad played for them so I was brought up mostly playing football “
“There were only a few boys in the village, so we used to play football in street”
“I did play rugby for my primary school, which only had eighteen pupils, so we had to combine with a school from the next village to get a team together, I started off as prop, I only played two games in the front row but to be honest I was hopeless”
Nigel then moved to number eight, and finally full back a utility career that James Hook would be proud of.
His first visit to a big match in Cardiff took place on 20 May 2000, the Welsh Challenge Cup final between Llanelli and Swansea.
“I went up to Cardiff with a few mates to watch the game, they were great occasions those cup finals, and they were great tournaments, with the minnows pitted against the big clubs, it’s a big shame that we’ve lost that, shame they’re not around anymore”
Ironically the referee that day was Nigel Whitehouse, the father of Ben Whitehouse now a top referee himself, and a WRU refereeing colleague of Nigel.
“The first international I went to was at the millenium stadium in 1999, when Wales beat South Africa, the new stadium was only half built then”
When I asked him about his rugby heroes during those early years he spoke of three Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies and Mark Ring,
” I was a big fan of Mark Ring, a wonderful footballer, I loved the way he played the game”
His sporting hero away from the oval ball was olympic legend Daley Thompson
As refereeing took over his heroes became his friends, mentors and fundamental figures in his development and progression.
It will surprise no one that the names of the two of the men in question are Clive Norling and Derek Bevan.
I remember going to watch a cup final in Tumble, west Wales, where Clive was the referee , I don’t remember anything about the game, but I do remember all the children running on to the pitch at half time all wanting Clive’s autograph”
“Clive also gave me my first job as a full-time referee”
“As for Derek (Bevan), well he has coached and helped me all through my career”
There is not much down time for one of the world’s top referees, especially one who gives so much of his off field time for charitable causes, although Nigel himself will not mention that fact.
But when his feet do touchdown at home he says:
“I’m happy to just catch up with some television and spend time with family”
The man himself plans to hang up his whitle in 2020, a world cup in Japan in 2019, then at the seasons end he will call it a day.
“Well that is the plan, but a lot of things can happen between now and then”
As our interview comes to an end the phone rings, yet another call no doubt requesting Nigel’s time or presence, or maybe it’s just Pope Francis trying to get an audience.