Nigel Owens reveals the secrets of refereeing Barbarians matches and explains why they are so difficult to control

The Barbarians embody some of the best traditions in rugby, and there is a strong Welsh association.

They used to regularly visit Wales where they would play Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Penarth and, of course, there is the famous try by Gareth Edwards when they played here in 1973 – a try that is always replayed every season and is regarded by most as their greatest ever.

This, along with Cliff Morgan’s wonderful commentary, is no doubt one of the reasons why the Barbarians games are still eagerly anticipated by many rugby fans.

Their matches are usually wonderful occasions, with a style of rugby played that, particularly in the professional era, demonstrates that winning is not everything, even though these fixtures today are not just a friendly. Winning means a lot still, but there seems to be less pressure on the players’ faces when they play, especially the Barbarians side.

The players can sometimes express themselves in a way they can’t in club or Test matches without the pressure of a league position or getting through to the next round of the cup.

These days, with player welfare paramount and the number of games they play, they do not play as many games as they used to, but when they do come around, they are a very popular fixture.

Yes, it’s a shame we don’t see a full-blown Test match side up against them as often any more, but for England on Sunday it was a chance for the next generation to express themselves and they certainly did, especially the young Marcus Smith at outside-half who deservedly won Man of the Match, and Josh Beaumont who captained the English team as if he had been doing it for years.



Nigel Owens with his assistants Pierre Brousset (L) and Andrew Brace at the England XV v Barbarians match

I refereed my first Barbarians match in 2005, against Scotland, just a few weeks before my first Test match, which was Japan against Ireland.

They tended then to give the games to younger referees, the new kids on the block, but what has become quite prevalent over the past few years is they have become quite difficult to referee.

They are usually free-flowing games, but now with having that winning mentality – plus wanting to enjoy themselves – it’s very difficult to referee as you need to get the balance right. If you don’t it can become quite a messy game for all concerned.

For those reasons they have changed tack and tended to give Barbarians games in recent years to more experienced referees.

As a ref, you might let some things go that you wouldn’t in other Test matches, but you don’t want to let the game deteriorate into a bun fight either.

If you let too much go the players will feel it’s a free-for-all and the contact area and scrums will become a mess and players’ discipline may be lost with it too.

I have refereed two Barbarian games in the past 18 months and I’d like to think I did a reasonable job and got the balance right, not too much whistle but also not ignoring clear and obvious infringements too.

It is a wonderful experience for the players. Last weekend’s game against England had a real edge. It was a young England side with players who wanted to prove themselves and the Barbarians had an enjoyable week beforehand, as they tend to. But I didn’t smell any beer on their breath while they were playing.



Warren Gatland, left, will coach the Barbarians against Wayne Pivac’s Wales on November 30

Some of them were blowing more than usual, with the pace of a highly-entertaining, free-flowing game for the most part taking a toll. Like myself, some of them are also getting a bit older.

But they still wanted to put one over England and the game was very fast.

The players still respect the referee, but you might get a little bit more cheek than usual. They are experienced players, and some real characters, but they are still respectful.

On one occasion the scrum turned and (Barbarians’ scrum half) Rhys Webb – who wore his old Bridgend Athletic socks in memory of Andrew Tellem who passed away after a lengthy illness – dashed around to me expecting a penalty so he could go quickly.

I shouted: “Get back there and put the ball in.”

The scrum was still taking place at this time and it had settled down so he put it in and play continued.

In a regular Test match I would not have told him to get back. I would have either given a penalty against the team responsible or reset the scrum if both sides were at fault. These type of situations are the little things you can let go in a game like this.

I’m sure the Barbarians enjoyed themselves after the game as well, as did the English team as it was the season done for most of them, if not all.

However, I didn’t as I was in training on Monday so had to travel home after the game as well as conduct the usual formalities.



Rhys Webb of Barbarians spends a little time with his family at the end of the game at Twickenham

I went into the changing room as usual before the match and told the front row players that I wanted them to enjoy themselves, but they still needed to scrummage within the laws. Joe Marler, who is one of the great characters of the game, told me: “Make sure you enjoy yourself too, Nige.”

I said: “I will, as long as you are on your best behaviour.”

I really do think it’s an important fixture and a fixture we in rugby must support and value. With player welfare there can’t be as many games as there perhaps once was, but I’d like to think we can still find space for it in the calendar.

This week it was announced that there’ll be a double-header of men and women’s Barbarians games in Cardiff at the end of November as a farewell and thank you to one of our great coaches – Warren Gatland – and his coaching staff. Many are already looking forward to it.

Just like in Twickenham on Sunday, how wonderful it is to see the double header of men’s and women’s teams sharing a wonderful fixture on the same day at the same stadium. Bravo to all involved in making this happen.

Barbarians rugby adds a lot of enjoyment to our wonderful game and long may that continue. It’s more tries like that classic one by Gareth Edwards in 1973 we want to see, not less of them.

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