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Nigel Owens MBE speaking during an interview

Nigel Owens column: The five best stadiums in the world that I refereed in

Nigel Owens hasta ambassador talks about the best stadiums he refereed at in his career. 

 

One of the great perks of being a referee at the highest level is that you get to travel all over the world and experience some of rugby’s great cathedrals.

It was a huge privilege to spend almost two decades flying to so many different countries and soaking up everything they have to offer. And with the All Blacks facing South Africa at Ellis Park in Johannesburg this weekend – the scene of the greatest game I ever refereed between the same two teams in 2013, in fact, many say it’s the greatest game they’ve ever seen too – it got me thinking about the best venues I blew the whistle at.

Some of my favourite moments were actually travelling to the matches. The officials would usually all be on the same minibus and we’d always arrive before the players did. So at places like Twickenham and Murrayfield, there’d be loads of fans waiting and before a Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh once the fans started chanting my name!

It’s really special because when you get to the stadium, that’s when you start to really get a sense of the occasion and the atmosphere begins to build. Then you go out onto the field behind the players. when the noise is as loud as it gets, and it is just incredible.

One point that should be made before we go any further is that some stadiums stand out regardless of what the occasion is but the quality of most stadiums depend on the events that are about to unfold. I’ve refereed at Murrayfield when there has been a few thousand there on a Friday night for an Edinburgh game. But I also refereed there when they beat Toulouse in front of about 46,000 people and it was a totally different beast. I’ve been there for some fantastic Test matches – and I always enjoyed it there – but when they hosted England it was a completely different atmosphere again.

I’ve been to New Zealand 14 times to referee and I thoroughly enjoyed it every time but the atmosphere wasn’t always as special as other places because, as far as the fans were concerned, the result was a foregone conclusion because the All Blacks were that good. You also don’t get as much away support in the southern hemisphere because of the travelling involved, we’re very lucky in that sense in Europe.

It doesn’t really matter what game is taking place at the Principality Stadium, there is just something special about it. It’s the way it’s built, where it is, the atmosphere that those factors combine to generate.

Judgement Day is great, European Cup matches there are the same and obviously top internationals are on another level. To me, that is the best stadium in the world but I will leave that out of my selections below because I am, of course, Welsh and maybe a little biased!

One final thing to note is that the occasions I refereed at these venues obviously influenced my experience of them, so they are very much personal choices.

5. Stade de France, Paris

When you’re inside the Stade de France it’s an incredible stadium. The atmosphere is up there with the best and I absolutely loved refereeing there but the actual location of the stadium is not the best, there isn’t a lot going on around it, it’s the total opposite to Cardiff in many ways.

Refereeing in that stadium when France are on song is something to behold. They usually have the DJ at one end before the match and the crowd really makes an effort to get involved in the match.

I did the 2018 game here when Johnny Sexton kicked a 45 metre drop goal after 46 phases to win the match and set Ireland on their way to a Grand Slam that year. France had scored the only try of the match to take the lead in the 72nd minute and the crowd were going crazy, it was so loud and La Marseillaise was being sung.

But Ireland were just relentless in that closing passage leading to the drop goal. People talk about the pressure on Sexton, well they want to know what it’s like refereeing at that stage of a match! You know any decision you make is probably going to decide the outcome. You can’t afford to get it wrong.

But that stadium is absolutely rocking when France are hitting their straps. A special place to referee.

Stade de France stadium

4. Thomond Park, Limerick

For me, few things beat Thomond Park on a European Cup weekend. That is an experience that should be on every rugby fan’s bucket list. When there are 28,000 in there for games against the likes of Toulouse, Leicester or Clermont – all of which I’ve refereed there – then it doesn’t half take some beating.

I did a game against Wasps there once and sent Lawrence Dallaglio to the sin bin. He’d killed the ball in his own 22 and it was a definite yellow card. As he trudged towards the bench, the noise went up to a different level. They were booing Dallaglio and cheering me!

Then there was the game against Northampton in 2011, when Munster went through 41 phases in the final play of the game before Ronan O’Gara nailed a drop goal from over 40 metres to win it. It was absolute pandemonium.

Refereeing Leinster v Munster in Dublin was one thing, but refereeing the same fixture at Thomond Park is something else entirely. It was a very difficult game to referee because of the intensity of the crowd and the players responding to that.

When you are in that stadium and all those thousands of supporters are singing Fields of Athenry, it really is breathtaking.

3. Croke Park, Dublin

I refereed Leinster v Munster here in the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009. It was like an international day, there was a sea of blue and red descending on the stadium. The attendance of over 82,000 set a record at the time and the atmosphere was remarkable.

That game was a bit of a turning point for Irish rugby because Munster were favourites that day and Leinster turned them over. Johnny Sexton came of age, Brian O’Driscoll was in his pomp and they ran Munster ragged that day. It was a brilliant game of rugby.

I remember Derek Bevan telling me he’d never been involved in a game like it at club level because the atmosphere was electric. You knew you were part of something special.

It’s actually the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association and usually hosts sports like Gaelic football but the stadium was used for rugby briefly while the Aviva Stadium was being built. I refereed Ireland v South Africa and Ireland v France there. But that Leinster v Munster match knocked spots off the international matches I refereed there in terms of the atmosphere the stadium generated.

Another ground that has so much history, though not traditionally in rugby.

2. Twickenham, London

It will always be a special place for me because it’s where I took charge of the World Cup final and my first ever Six Nations match, but there is more to this selection than just that. Surprisingly, for a match where the host nation wasn’t involved, with a lot of neutral supporters in the ground, the atmosphere was special.

I say neutral supporters but it felt like most people in the ground had chosen a team to support, there can’t have been many who weren’t rooting for one team or the other and that added to the occasion. I remember some of the crowd outside wishing me good luck as we walked into the stadium, which was a nice touch..

I’ve always enjoyed refereeing at Twickenham. I’ve taken charge of England games many times and I always got a great welcome there. It’s a lovely stadium and it’s always full.

Sometimes it’s not as passionate as you might see elsewhere. Similar to my earlier comment about Munster v Leinster at Thomond Park, Wales v England at Twickenham and at the Principality Stadium are very different occasions. If Wales scored a great try at Twickenham, the majority of home fans would probably politely acknowledge it, I can assure you the reaction would be very different in Cardiff if roles were reversed!

But Twickenham is still a fantastic venue, even though it’s not always a hit with Welsh supporters.

1. Ellis Park, Johannesburg

I only refereed here once and it was the game I mentioned earlier but it’s a special place for me. The game was South Africa v New Zealand in 2013 and the atmosphere that day was just something to behold. The game itself was just unbelievable and played at such a pace, without a doubt the best I ever refereed. The All Blacks won 38-27, there were nine tries and some of them were stunning. The crowd really got into the game, as they always do in South Africa, and it made for a truly special memory.

The ground itself is not in a great place but there is so much history there with the 1995 World Cup final being played there. They did the same in 2013 as they did in 1995 as well when they flew this massive jumbo jet over the stadium. I was out on the field warming up and it was so low you thought it was going to clip the top of the stand.

I remember thinking to myself ‘Wow, what an occasion this is’. The supporters were incredible and it is just one of the great rugby venues anywhere in the world.

Ellis Park, Johannesburg

 

Credit Wales Online https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/nigel-owens-column-five-best

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