“Bloody 50. It’s downhill from now on!”

So begins my conversation with birthday boy Nigel Owens as he brings up his half century.

It’s a watershed period in his life all round, given he has now refereed his last game of professional rugby.

He will still be employed by the WRU next season, coaching young refs, and will take charge of the odd club game, while also doing media work.

But you won’t see him out on the big stage any more.

From now on, his main focus will be on his farm in west Wales and his two herds of Hereford cattle.

READ MORE: Nigel Owens wants to have children

When I catch up with him for an hour long chat, the first question is whether it actually feels like he is 50?

“No it doesn’t at all, to be honest with you,” he replies.

“It was my 30th was the one I struggled with.

“Forty was fine and 50 doesn’t feel any different.

“It’s funny though. When I was going down the rugby club in Pontyberem or the Mynyddcerrig Workmans club at 17 or 18, there were people there who were old men as far as I was concerned, like your mates’ parents. They were old people.

“Christ, they then were the same age as I am now!

“So you realise, although you don’t feel old yourself, I probably am seen as old by people who are the age I was back then.”

It was the passing years and the realisation that he wanted to do other things in his life which ultimately led to Owens’ decision to retire from international rugby.

In fact, his original plan was to do so the previous season.

“Just before going to the World Cup in Japan in September 2019, I got injured refereeing Cardiff v Pontypridd at the Arms Park,” he recalls.

“That was the Friday night and I was supposed to fly out a few days later.

“So it was touch and go if I would go to the World Cup or not.

“I was sitting at home that weekend with a brace around my leg to help the recovery.

“I said to my partner Barrie, ‘I want to go, but if I don’t it won’t be the end of the world, I won’t be gutted like I would have been with previous tournaments’.

“I knew then that the time was coming.

“I did go to Japan in the end. But when I arrived, I had something like 56 days out there ahead of me. I remember counting the days down to coming home.

“I enjoyed it out there and the games went well. I refereed probably the best match of the tournament between England and New Zealand.

“But I didn’t enjoy being away from home and all the review meetings out there.

“I knew then the time was coming to an end.

“I had done four World Cups and there just comes a point when you want to be home with family, friends and loved ones who you have missed out on over the years.

“I was also getting a bit frustrated with the lack of PRO14 games I was getting. I was pulling my hair out with it.

“So the plan was to call it a day at the end of that season.

“But then, all of a sudden, after the Six Nations, I was on 98 Test matches.

“I was speaking to people and they were saying you’ve got to referee your 100th game, you can’t finish now, you will regret it if you do.

“So, because I was still reffing at the top of my game, I decided to go on and I finished on the 100th game in Paris, when I did France-Italy last November.

“I went on a year more than I thought I would have.

“But the end came naturally really.”

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Announcing his retirement from Test rugby in December, Owens continued at domestic level, before taking charge of what proved to be his final professional fixture - Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh at the Arms Park on March 22.

“I have refereed my last game in the PRO14 and I won’t be involved in it next season,” he declares.

“I will still referee in the club game and a couple of youth matches, stuff like that, as well as coaching some of the younger referees like Craig Evans, Adam Jones and Ben Breakspear. I will still be involved with the national squad when they are in camp as well.

“But as far as reffing professionally is concerned, that’s me done and dusted. I am finished now.

“I am not missing it one bit at the moment, to be honest with you.

“The game is unwatchable at times, with the captain’s challenges and referees going up seven, eight times to check things with the TMO.

“There is too much pressure on referees to get every single little technical thing right and you can’t do that without the flow of the game suffering.

“Plus there are no crowds there either.

“There’s the travelling as well and all the bloody meetings and camps. You are away refereeing and not home much, spending so much time in airports and flying back and fore. I am not going to miss that side of it one bit at all.

“I am looking forward now to watching Pontyberem play and having a beer or two after in the clubhouse.

“It wasn’t my body telling me to stop, it was other factors.

“There comes a point when other things in life become more important.

“So it was the right time for me to finish for many reasons.

“When I said I was retiring from international rugby, the amount of messages I got was unbelievable.

“It’s the old saying, when you are on the stage always leave the audience wanting more.”

Owens’ 20 years as a professional referee, the 100 Test matches and his personality on and off the field have seen him acquire a public profile and a celebrity status that no other official in the game has attained.

“I don’t crave it and I didn’t get into refereeing for that,” he says.

“I did it because it was something I enjoyed.

“I didn’t want to be a celebrity or to be famous or to be known. It just happened.

“It’s something that has come along with my success, I guess.

“After doing the 2015 World Cup final in Twickenham, all of a sudden people were recognising me on the streets of London which was something I would have never experienced before.

Will Genia of Australia prepares to put the ball into the scrum as referee Nigel Owens of Wales sets the two packs during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and Australia
Nigel Owens taking charge of the 2015 Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia

“I’ll be in Carmarthen on a night out and I’ll have people wanting photos with me and autographs.

“My friends will say ‘How the hell do you put up with this all the time?’

“But I remember going to watch my cousin play for Tumble in the 1980s and Ray Gravell was there sitting a couple of rows behind me in the stand.

“I went up to ask him to sign my match programme and he was so accommodating and chatting away.

“I have always remembered that, what it meant to me as a young 13, 14-year-old boy that someone as well known as Grav could make time for you.

“So I think of that when people come up to me to ask for a signature, or a photo or for me to do a video message for their mate that is getting married.

“It’s a pleasure to do it. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just the way my life has gone, I guess.

“It’s nice when people come up and want a photo and want to speak to you.”

His high-profile has had one downside, though, as he explains.

“It did put a lot of pressure on me on the refereeing side of things,” he admits.

“There’s a target on your back.

“There would be some people who couldn’t wait for you to mess up in a game to knock you off your pedestal or your perch.

“If I made a decision in a game, whether it’s right or wrong, then it would be all over the media. Podcasts pick up on it, ex-players will comment about it.

“There is a former player in Ireland who has had a go at me a couple of times.

“One of his friends, who I know, rang me up to say ‘Ignore that, he knows by having a go at you his podcast is going to get airtime, it’s going to be picked up on by other media’.

“If people comment about other referees, it wouldn’t get as much coverage as it would when someone has a go at me.

“So my success brought a huge amount of pressure on me as a referee and I felt the pressure sometimes.

“That’s something I won’t miss. I have really felt a weight off my shoulders.”

“Saying or doing nothing when people are wronged is not right,” he said.

“The only way we will make a better society is by people standing up and calling out totally unacceptable behaviour.

“If people are saying things that are wrong or totally homophobic, you should tell them that is not acceptable.

“There are some horrible things said on Twitter, some horrible people on there.

“If everybody says nothing, those people won’t go away, they will continue to say horrible things.

“If everybody on Twitter stood up and said this is not acceptable and Twitter stood up and did something about it as well, then these negative and horrible voices on there, the keyboard warriors hidden behind blank profiles would be silenced by the huge majority of decent people.

“When I think somebody is wronging people on there, I am going to stand up and say it.

“Sometimes people will say ‘Well, I’m entitled to my opinion’.

“Well yeah, opinions are a bit like a***holes, everyone’s got one.

“You can’t have an opinion when it’s totally factually wrong. That then is just a feeble excuse to say something.

“So the more people that call out horrible people on there shows there are more good people out there than bad people.

“We are responsible for what we say and sometimes we have even more responsibility if we stand by and say nothing.”

Away from the big stage and the world of celebrity, Owens’ day-to-day life now is just about as grounded as it could be.

It seems him fully hands on with with the two farm sites he owns over 100 acres near Pontyberem and his 50 Hereford cattle.

Having been born into a farming family, it’s the fulfillment of a long-held ambition.

“My first dream when I was eight years of age was to be a farmer, a long time before I ever thought of becoming a referee,” he says.

“My love was always in farming.

“It’s something I am passionate about and something I always wanted to do.

“It’s important you plan for the future and that’s what I did with the farm.”

Nigel Owens feeding the Hereford cattle on his farm

So as he reaches 50, do we find him a happy, contented man?

“Yeah, very happy to be honest,” he said.

“Yes, I have had some dark times in my life.

“I was within 20 minutes of losing my life one night.

“That has probably contributed to who I am today and made me the person I am.

“I had a second chance. A lot of people were not as lucky as me. When they took their own life, they didn’t get a second chance.

“I did. I got a second chance to spend time with my family and friends.

“I am forever grateful for that and for everybody who supported me along the way, particularly in rugby.

“I probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for rugby and the people within the sport.

“I think how fortunate I am. I am in reasonably good health, I’ve got a loving family and partner.

“I get so many requests for get well messages for people who are suffering or for signed jerseys or books to raise money for people going through difficult times.

“I have a very contented life. I am very, very fortunate. I thank my lucky stars pretty much everyday of how fortunate I am compared to the difficult time so many people are going through.

“With what has happened over the past year or so with Covid, you get to appreciate some of the things you take so much for granted, like family, friends, health.

“I remember somebody once telling me go and enjoy every day as though it’s your last because one day it will be.

“So I enjoy every day. We all moan that we are getting old, but you’ve got to appreciate the fact you’ve got a bit of good health and are still here.

“Life is short, so make sure you enjoy it.”