By Rob Cole
You simply can’t keep Nigel Owens out of the headlines when he’s got a whistle in his hands, and the game is all the better for it.
Even World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper was moved to commend the world’s most senior and famous match official for his actions in Paris at the weekend for protecting the values of the game when he asked Racing 92 full back Simon Zebo to apologise to his young Ulster opposite number, Michael Lowry, for taunting him as he ran past him to score.
— Brett Gosper (@brettgosper) October 21, 2018
To many it may have seemed like nothing, akin to what George North did when he scored for the British & Irish Lions against Australia in 2013, but it upset the Ulster players and burly centre Stuart McCloskey went in to let Zebo know how he felt during his post-try celebrations.
Never mind that Zebo was surrounded by a host of admiring team mates, or that 13,000 French fans were cheering him, up went Owens and in his inimitable style demanded better behaviour from one of the game’s headline acts.
After pulling Zebo aside, Owens side: “I don’t think you need to do that, OK, so I suggest you apologise for that. Apologise.”
Zebo immediately responded, went up to Lowry and put his arm around him. It completely diffused any tension or bad feeling.
“Thanks for doing that, that’s good. It keeps the game’s values good,” was Owens’ reaction to Zebo. Racing went on to win 44-12, but it didn’t end there for Zebo.
He posted an apologetic message to his 210,000 followers on Twitter and then waited outside the Ulster dressing room to see Lowry again. What Owens had done was to initiate a full scale about turn from Zebo and once again highlighted the need to keep respect within the game.
“I feel shit,” admitted Zebo after the game. “Michael’s a lovely fellah and as soon as I went over to apologise he was very receptive. We’d a good chat after the game and there’s no ill-feelings or anything.
“I had to wait 10 minutes outside the dressing-room to give him my jersey and apologise again. These things happen, but I’d prefer if they didn’t happen to me.
“I’ve played the game for I don’t know how many years and I’ve never done anything like that, I just got too excited. I probably built up the game a bit too much in my head this week and let the emotions get the better of me for a few seconds,” added Zebo.
“You live and learn, I wouldn’t want my kids to do that I’m and I’m very disappointed with myself.”
It is not the first time that Owens, the veteran of more than 100 European matches, more internationals than any other referee, four Heineken Champions Cup finals and a World Cup final, has grabbed the attention for his in-match comments. Unlike many other officials, he leaves the players in no doubt about their responsibilities on the pitch.