Nigel Owens has spoken of how close he came to retiring from rugby after he was targeted with homophobic abuse at Twickenham in 2014, only for a hand-written letter from former Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont to convince him to carry on.
A year later, Owens went on to referee the Rugby World Cup final inside the same stadium, but it was the incident during the autumn international between England and New Zealand that left him questioning whether he wanted to remain in the sport, having been the subject of vile abuse from individuals in the stands.
“It was New Zealand vs England in Twickenham, I’d had a couple of phone calls asking me what I’d thought about the comments that had been shouted at me,” Owens says in a video released by Dove Men+Care ahead of this weekend’s Pride event in Cardiff, of which he is a patron for.
“What we really don’t know and what I don’t know is were they true rugby people or were they people that just came along to that game?
“What was difficult, people talking about it and then everyone in the world knows you’re gay, there’s everything like that. So there was a sense of disappointment, of ‘here we go again’. Even now after all I’ve been through there’s times where it gets you down and gets you scared.”
But after considering his future in the game and potentially quitting as a referee, Owens received a letter from former England captain Beaumont – then the RFU’s chairman – stressing just how welcome he was at Twickenham and deploring the actions of those who abused him.
“Forty-eight hours after the game, on the Monday I think, we were [made] aware that comments had been made,” Beaumont said. “I just felt sad, [that] somebody would’ve stooped so slow, and decided then that I would write a personal letter to Nigel that I care about it and the Union cared about it, and that he would always be welcome at Twickenham.”
Owens added: “It was really touching, I sort of read the letter with a little tear in my eye really. Reading that letter that gave me the impression that it really does mean something to him, he really does care.”
Owens would of course return to the home of English rugby many times after, including the World Cup final in 2015 between the All Blacks and Australia, but his first visit after the incident came in the Six Nations earlier that year to officiate England’s match against France. Upon his arrival, he was given a standing ovation.
“I remember coming off the bus and walking through that crowd and when they started to clap it was an unbelievable feeling,” he said.
Beaumont added: “It was really touching, I sort of read the letter with a little tear in my eye really. Reading that letter that gave me the impression that it really does mean something to him, he really does care.”
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