There is perhaps no better respected referee in the gameFlorian Christoph

With the countdown to the 2018 Varsity rugby matches on Thursday becoming more audible with every passing minute, excitement reached an even higher pitch on Tuesday as it was announced that Nigel Owens MBE would be refereeing the men’s fixture between Oxford and Cambridge at Twickenham.

“So many of the greatest referees have officiated at the Varsity Match at Twickenham. It is one of the iconic fixtures in the game”

Owens has made a name for himself as one of the most respected referees in Rugby Union, with his good-natured, no-nonsense attitude with players and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules of the game. The Welshman will be well-acquainted with Twickenham, having manned the whistle in the most high-profile game in the rugby calendar, the World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia at the stadium in 2015. He is the third World cup final referee to take charge of the Oxford vs Cambridge tie and the first Welshman in over a hundred years. In 2007 Owens public came out as gay, and was subsequently named ‘sportsperson of the decade’ by Stonewall in 2015. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 2016 birthday honours list for services to sport.

Owens was awarded an MBE in 2016Mark Geater

Meanwhile, Nikki O’Donnell will be refereeing her first women’s Varsity match. O’Donnell has been carving out a very successful career as a referee, having overseen her first tier one international fixture between Wales and South Africa just last month, and having refereed her first National Two men’s game in October, between the Henley Hawks and the Dings Crusaders. She is regarded as one of the top three female referees in the country, on top of working as a nursing officer in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army nursing corps.

Reacting to his appointment to referee the 137th men’s Varsity match, Owens reflected: “so many of the greatest referees have officiated at the Varsity Match at Twickenham. It is one of the iconic fixtures in the game.”

In previous years, he explained, European games have got in the way of him being able to referee the Varsity match but this time thinks have fallen into place just at the right time. “It looked as though I’d have to miss out on the Varsity Match once again, but the EPCR referee manager Joel Jutge gave me special dispensation to do both games. I’m very grateful to him and I’m really looking forward to being a part of such an historic occasion.”


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Securing major figures within the game signals a major coup for The Varsity Match and suggests that the magic of what is one of the longest-running fixtures in any sport anywhere in the world is very much alive. David Searle, CEO of the Varsity Match Company said, “It is fantastic to have the endorsement of the world’s leading referee for our fixture at Twickenham.” He added, “it is nice to see that the current crop of professional referees still see value in the traditions of the game and still want to be involved in games like the Varsity Match.”

O’Donnell will also feel comfortable running out at Twickenham, having patrolled the touchline in England’s 37-15 win over Ireland Women last November. Speaking to The Varsity Match website, she said: “It’s always an honour to be involved in a game at HQ. The England v Ireland match was a fantastic game to be involved in with over 10,000 staying to watch a spectacle of women’s rugby. Rugby has given me lots of opportunities but, more importantly, some great friends around the world.”

O’Donnell may have found friendship in the Rugby world, but both she and Owens may well have their work cut out policing what is a notoriously bloodthirsty rivalry between the Light Blues and the Dark Blues on Thursday. It does seem, however, that there are no two better candidates for the task.

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