Rugby: Gay referee Nigel Owens centre stage at World Cup Final as rugby embraces diversity

Referee Nigel Owens (centre) officiates during a 2015 Rugby World Cup match between France and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales, on Oct 11.
Referee Nigel Owens (centre) officiates during a 2015 Rugby World Cup match between France and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales, on Oct 11. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - When referee Nigel Owens walks out at Twickenham to take charge of Saturday's Rugby World Cup final he will be chipping another brick away from the wall of homophobia that has enclosed professional sport for decades.

Owens came out as gay in 2007 and although his personal life is well documented, seeing him at the centre of the sport's biggest showpiece further underlines progress that is being made.

"We are extremely proud of Nigel Owens for being selected as the referee for the final," Jeff Wilson, chairman of International Gay Rugby (IGR), told Reuters on Wednesday. "Throughout this World Cup, Nigel has proven that talent and consistency are the most important factors for selection and by being an openly gay man, he proves that factors like sexual orientation can and will be a non-issue in the sport of rugby.

"By continuing to be that role model, he shows LGBT people that everyone in the sport has the chance to rise to the level of their abilities."

Widely recognised as one of the best referees in the game and with a host of major finals and 67 tests already under his belt, 44-year-old Owens is more than happy to speak about gay issues these days.

But that was not always the case.

He says he was once close to suicide when he took an overdose and passed out on a Welsh mountainside with a shotgun by his side, only to be rescued by a police helicopter.

"I was going downhill very fast, to a very dark place where there was no way out for me," Owens told the BBC in an interview broadcast this week. "I left a note for my mum and dad and said I can't carry on any more with my life. I didn't tell them why ...If I hadn't gone into a coma I have no doubts whatsoever I would have pulled that trigger."

Having emerged from that period, Owens now finds himself something of a torchbearer for the fight against homophobia in sport, with many of rugby's administrators also in the vanguard.

In 1995 the first gay rugby team was formed in London and now boasts Gareth Thomas, the former Wales international who also came out as gay, as their honorary president.

There are now over 60 gay rugby teams in the world and in March this year World Rugby signed a Memorandum of Understanding with IGR to eliminate homophobia at all levels of the game.

"The selection of Nigel for the final reinforces the culture that World Rugby is fostering," Wilson said.