Rugby: Retiring referee great Nigel Owen leaves big impression on NZ's Ben O'Keeffe

After a colourful 17-year career as one of the most influential and respected figures in world rugby, Welshman Nigel Owens has hung up his whistle at international level.

The game's most capped test referee won't just be remembered for the number of matches he controlled, but also the manner he did it and he's left a huge impression on one of New Zealand's best.

"Nigel Owens will always be Nigel Owens," says Ben O'Keeffe. "He was the best ever because of who he was on the field and I don't think anyone will able to do that again."

Two weeks ago, Owens made history with his 100th test in charge, but no-one knew when he blew the final whistle, it would also be his last. 

"Nobody has the divine right to go on forever," he says. "It's time to move on, so the refereeing at the test match level will come to an end now." 

Owens' career saw him preside over the 2015 World Cup final between the All Blacks and Australia, as well as the England v New Zealand semi-final 12 months ago, but he had his own personal challenges.

In 2007, he shocked the sports world by coming out as gay and he's convinced rugby gave him a second chance.

"One thing rugby does lead on is inclusiveness, diversity, fair play and equality for all, and that's something I'm proud to be a part of," Owens says. 

"He was very open about," O'Keefe says. "It's OK to express how you feel and it's OK to be who you are." 

The Welshman's approach to the game was certainly different.

"Nigel would be the first one to admit that he didn't know the laws as well as everyone else did," says O'Keefe says. "But what he could contribute to the game was something we find really hard to achieve - the way he was able to manage players."   

More often than not, that was through his humour.

"As an individual, he was the only one who could do that stuff and that's what we loved about him," O'Keefe says.

He may not be the international referee anymore, but Owens says his days of service to the game are far from over.

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