Rugby Retro: Nigel Owens on Springboks vs All Blacks 2013 decider
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 16/05/20 1:41pm
Nigel Owens revisits 2013's Rugby Championship decider between South Africa and New Zealand and his recollections of refereeing it in the latest Rugby Retro.
"To be honest with you, when I blew the final whistle, I knew I was mentally and physically drained. I thought to myself, I've never felt like this ever before. But I didn't realise how great the game was until people started sending messages saying, 'my God, what an unbelievable game of rugby'."
In his role as one of the world's premier referees, Nigel Owens has had the best seat in the house for many of the game's most memorable moments of the last decade. In fact, his now famous candour with players has even delivered some of those moments.
But it is a match that left him speechless, and exhausted, that is the focus of the latest of Sky Sports' Rugby Retro series.
The 2013 Rugby Championship was headed for a final-round decider between unbeaten New Zealand, and hosts South Africa. Ellis Park, the scene of many Springbok triumphs and the spiritual home of rugby in the Rainbow Nation, welcomed the two teams on a clear spring afternoon on the high veld.
"When I look back now, there was something special about that day, and in hindsight you could see exactly how everything unfolded," Owens says.
"I remember being out on the pitch warming up…and they flew over the big jumbo jet just before the game. Just like they did in the World Cup '95 final, where it came really low. The crowd just went up, and I looked up and I thought it was going to come into the stadium. I just thought 'wow'."
The atmosphere may have been fuelled by history and jet engines, but in truth, the match was enough of a draw on its own. South Africa needed to win with a bonus-point try, and deny New Zealand any match points, to win the Championship. Their supporters knew the score.
Miles Harrison was in the Ellis Park commentary position for Sky Sports that day, and recalled the pre-match setting.
"New Zealand never go into a match not wanting to win, not expecting to win it - not in an arrogant way, just in that overwhelmingly confident way that New Zealand have. But on that particular day…it was about bagging that bonus point as well, to make sure that if they did lose, they would still be champions. So from the off, they were going to go for it.
"South Africa knew that their only way to win it was to go for it, so it was all set up. And it just got the perfect start."
All Black right wing Ben Smith and No 8 Kieran Read, two men at the peak of their powers in 2013, combined down the right flank, and Smith's speed, step and power - he was deceptive in all three departments - saw New Zealand take the lead on 10 minutes.
Smith's opposite that day, Bryan Habana, didn't have to sweat long on his missed tackle. Five minutes on, a broken field break by Duane Vermeulen gifted the 'Bok speedster an easy run in, and then almost from the restart, South Africa attacked from deep in their own half. Francois Louw took on a half gap and, falling, found Habana again.
Nigel Owens was mere metres from the action as Habana took the ball on half-way, chipped the last defender, and chased.
"When you referee a game you don't really notice a lot of things that go on as far as brilliant tries, brilliant plays. You occasionally notice a big hit, and go 'wow, what a hit'…but I do remember in that game the Habana try.
"I remember him getting the ball and just going to myself 'my God'…that's when the crowd basically erupted, and they stayed in that zone right to the very end."
15-7 South Africa led, with two tries and twenty minutes gone. Their plan was on track, and the Ellis Park crowd knew it.
So too, did New Zealand, who responded before the end of a frantic first half with two tries to loose forward Liam Messam. The All Blacks went into the shed with a six-point lead, but still chasing the decisive bonus point.
By the hour mark, the resurgent Boks had scored through Willie le Roux and captain Jean de Villiers, in the process steam-rolling New Zealand fly-half replacement, the up-and-coming Beauden Barrett.
That was the try bonus point for South Africa, and a three-point lead. All they had to do was stretch that lead to eight and hold New Zealand from scoring again in the remaining 20 minutes, and the Championship was theirs.
It was a short lived dream as Barrett showed two minutes later his now trade mark acceleration and eye for a gap, and New Zealand's fourth try secured the title, whatever the final 20 minutes held.
Which, it turned out, was quite a lot. Somehow lost in the drama of the occasion was an error from New Zealand team manager Darren Shand, in charge of the replacements. When, on 43 minutes, hooker Andrew Hore was substituted, he was replaced by Dane Coles, not Keven Mealamu as the official team sheet stated. A simple administrative oversight, or a sly strategy designed to scupper the opposition?
Owens was the official to spot the error, and he feared a great occasion might be cast in shadow. Amid the disappointment of the match situation, Jean de Villiers showed his colours.
"What a great player, but what a great captain and what a great man, and the way he came up and handled that situation and said 'look, mistakes happen, let's just get on with it'. I thought to myself, that is what a true, great rugby player is. A genuine person, and a great leader as well.
"That could've blown up to be a huge situation in the game…under all this pressure, knowing that maybe, by making an issue out of this…could New Zealand have lost some points? Could they have won the Championship then by points being deducted? Who knows?"
Miles Harrison is in agreement.
"Nigel is right to mention the sportsmanship of that moment, and put that on a pedestal around the great rugby moments we saw that day…it's my abiding memory, as good as the game was, Jean de Villiers' attitude at the end."
The All Blacks underlined the win, and the title, with a try to Kieran Read, but the two teams maintained their intensity until the 80th minute, when it was Owens' job to call time.
"When South Africa lose, you can be prepared for a lot of stick from their supporters when you're a referee, because they're so, so passionate. But on this occasion, after the final whistle, I had supporters coming up to me congratulating me on a great game.
"It was such a brilliant game, they enjoyed it so much, even the fact that they lost to their bitter rivals, it took away that disappointment."
On reflection now, he maintains that the 2015 Rugby World Cup final is his proudest achievement, and the greatest occasion of his career, "but as far as the rugby, as far as the quality goes then yes, this is the one without a doubt. It is the top one for me."