Nigel Owens has responded strongly in the face of allegations of homophobic abuse against the top referee in Twickenham last Saturday, saying 'Rugby is about respect... it cannot follow the football route.'
The Welshman spoke in an interview with WalesOnline, in the wake of a letter sent to The Guardian from an England fan who was outraged at hearing the abuse hurled at Owens during England's match with New Zealand. The fan in question, Keith Wilson, wrote:
As a rugby fan, a straight man in his 60s, I could not believe that a bunch of men half my age watching a rugby match in the 21st century could be capable of hurling such nasty, foul-mouthed, homophobic abuse at an openly gay match official.
Owens – who hadn't heard the abuse at the time – lauded the actions of Mr Wilson and in doing so focused on the positives around the incident:
The guy who sent the letter into The Guardian needs to be applauded really. People like him are the ones who can help to eradicate this sort of thing from rugby ...
... It’s people like this man who have the courage to bring these problems to the wider attention of people and raise the issue of it.
The referee said anyone would be a fool to think there is not a minority of fans who would hurl all sorts of abuse but when discussing the boos that rang out around the Millenium Stadium for the out-of-form Rhys Priestland, Owens expressed fears that this minority is growing:
I think there’s no doubt there are certain sections of rugby crowds which are changing. You can sense the change in attitude and maybe there is an argument to say it is becoming more like football. It is still a minority but it is there.
We can’t let rugby go down that route. Our game is based on respect for the officials, the players and everyone involved.
Owens supports Warren Gatland's call for Priestland to stick two fingers up to the critics with his performance against Fiji this weekend and said that he would do the same himself when he takes charge of France v Australia; 'I need to stick two fingers up to those who shouted abuse at me. I need to go out there and prove them wrong.'
You can read the full interview here.