Time was when Nigel Owens was announced as the referee for any match involving Ireland or one of the four provinces, this was welcomed by the teams and supporters alike.
Owens is the world’s most recognisable and popular referee in the game. The Welshman is as much an entertainer off the pitch as on it, and is regularly sought after as a guest speaker in Ireland and many other countries, as well as being a sometime columnist in Wales.
He’s always had an empathy for the game, and hence the matches Owens referees are generally free-flowing, with low penalty counts.
Most likely, Irish teams and supporters still welcome his appointment, but that comes with the view that the feeling was shared in the All Blacks camp when Owens was confirmed as the referee for Ireland’s quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo Stadium this Saturday (kick-off 7.15pm local time/11.15am Irish time).
Accordingly, both camps greeted his appointment positively, albeit in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Simon Easterby said: "I think it's a good appointment. I think we're familiar with him, but so are the All Blacks. He does a lot of Rugby Championship games, he's one of the Northern Hemisphere referees that does get a lot of coverage in the Rugby Championship.
“So I think he’s good. He’s a good appointment and I think both camps will be pretty happy to see Nigel out in the middle. He’s got a good way about him. We know him well but so do they and I think he’ll allow the game to flow. But he’ll also be across all the set-piece work and I think he’ll be a good man to have in the middle.”
For his part, the All Blacks' assistant coach Ian Foster said: "To be honest we're happy with whoever we get and I'm sure at this stage of the tournament World Rugby has worked hard to get the referees that are best suited to the knockout stages. It's not good or bad but he's obviously a good ref so I'm sure he'll be looking forward to the occasion."
Although Owens is a Northern Hemisphere referee, the All Blacks’ contentment is understandable. Owens has refereed New Zealand in 22 Tests and, unusually for a European referee, he has taken charge of 12 All Blacks games in the Southern Hemisphere, be it 2011 World Cup, Rugby Championship and/or Bledisloe Cup games.
Of those 22 games, the All Blacks have been on the winning side 20 times, which admittedly is around about their normal winning ratio. Owens refereed two All Blacks’ defeats by the Springboks in the 2009 Rugby Championship, 31-19 away and 32-29 at home, but since then, the All Blacks have won 18 Tests in a row under his watch.
Owens has refereed Ireland on 15 occasions beginning, ironically, with his debut as a Test referee in Japan, when Ireland recorded a 44-12 victory in Osaka back in June 2005.
Now, over 14 years on and with 80-odd Tests to his name, it’s rather surprising to realise, given Ireland’s much improved winning ratio in latter years, that there have been eight wins and seven defeats in those 15 matches.
Perhaps most unnervingly, these figures are heavily influenced by the three New Zealand-Ireland Tests he has overseen, namely the All Blacks’ 42-10 win in the first Test in 2012, the 22-19 victory in the second Test a week later and their 24-22 win at the Aviva Stadium in 2013.
For those Irish players and coaches involved in the latter two games, they will grate forever. In the second Test in Christchurch, Ireland were drawing 19-19 and the All Blacks were down to 14 men after Israel Dagg had, uncharacteristically, taken out Rob Kearney in the air.
Nearing the end, Ireland drove the All Blacks scrum back and Owens sounded his whistle. But when Jack McGrath, Paul O'Connell and co looked up expecting a potential match-winning penalty (and Johnny Sexton was kicking them from the car park that night) the look of disappointment on their faces when Owens penalised Ireland for scrumming at an angle was palpable. The All Blacks went up the line and through the phases for Dan Carter to kick the match-winning drop goal.
More regrettably still, Ireland were running down the clock in the 80th minute with a 22-17 lead in the Aviva Stadium in 2013 when Owens pinged McGrath for going off his feet. It was a tough call, and this time the All Blacks went through multiple, highly skilled phases before Dane Coles' offload put Ryan Crotty over for the equalising try. Aaron Cruden's twice taken conversion sealed a 24-22 win.
It's also worth noting that Owens was the referee when Munster secured their second Heineken Cup in the final in Cardiff in 2008 when beating Toulouse by 16-12, as well as Leinster's first triumph, courtesy of a 19-16 win over Leicester in Murrayfield in 2009. He was also in charge at Twickenham in 2012 when Leinster beat Ulster 42-14 in an all-Irish final.
Above all Owens is, as Jonathan Kaplan has generously conceded, the outstanding referee of his generation, even though he forecast that Jerome Garces is likelier to be chosen as the 2019 World Cup final referee if France don't make the decider. That Owens was given the opening game between Japan and Russia, four years on from refereeing the final in Twickenham, probably indicated as much.
New Zealand under Nigel Owens
Played 22. 20 wins. 2 defeats.
Ireland under Nigel Owens.
Played 15. 8 wins. 7 defeats.