Now that the Rugby World Cup is over for another four years it is a good time to reflect on what business owners can learn from the world of rugby refereeing, writes RiverTribe Business Columnist, Norman Jackson.


Nigel Owens MBE currently holds the world record for most test matches refereed – 170 and counting. He refereed the 2015 World Cup Final and is famous for his witty one-liners. Some of these can be found on YouTube – one of my favourites is when Chris Robshaw, Captain of England, challenged one of his decisions and all Nigel said was, “Christopher!” and Chris meekly retreated. He admits applying humour may not be the best time when giving players a yellow or red card – but at other times, it can really defuse a tense situation – and so in business. 

In 2007, Nigel came out as gay – a few years earlier he was having difficulty coming to terms with his sexuality and tried to commit suicide – fortunately he failed and then he realised he had to accept who he was and move on. In business, not being yourself is not recommended – being the best version of yourself is certainly a better goal.   

In 2017, the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand had both won one test each going into the last encounter at Eden Park. The Kiwis led 12–6 at half time but the Lions fought back and with two minutes left the scores were 15-15, when Lions player Ken Owens was adjudged to have handled the ball in an offside position. French referee Romain Poite initially awarded a penalty, which was in easy kicking range, and which would have allowed New Zealand to win the match and the series – but Lions captain, Sam Warburton persuaded Poite to refer the incident to the video officials – and by doing so, the decision was overturned – and the match and series were drawn.

Now you may think that was luck – but in the BBC top-notch podcasts named “Don’t Tell Me The Score”, which uses sport to explore life’s bigger questions, Sam explains that his philosophy as captain was always “Less is More” – and that he would only approach referees when it mattered. In business, choosing which battles to win is often a sensible approach.  

Sam also confided that early in his career as a rugby captain, he realised that reading and fully understanding the international referees handbook was essential – this attention to detail allowed him to make that intervention. Often in business, the devil is in the detail and preparation, preparation and preparation is the platform for success.

Then there is Wayne Barnes for whom Japan is his fourth World Cup. He has refereed more English Premiership games than anyone else. He admits he has a piece of paper in his kit bag, which says ‘you’re not here to be popular’,” – he continues by saying, “ If you try and be popular, you’ll never make the best decisions – a referee should be respected for making honest decisions.” Good advice for anyone in business.