WALES'S top referee, Nigel Owens, is focusing on hitting top form in what could be a career defining season.
The effervescent west-Walian, who was in Cardiff to referee the Welsh varsity match, finds out next week whether he is on the list of 11 elite referees selected by the IRB to officiate at this autumn’s World Cup in New Zealand.
And with a huge Heineken Cup quarter-final at the sold-out new Lansdowne Road between former champions Leicester and Leinster, as well as the possibility of taking charge of his third European final in Cardiff in May, Owens knows he needs to be at the top of his game.
“Fingers crossed I will be one of the 11 doing the world cup.
“Leinster-Leicester is a massive game with 52,000 people in the Aviva stadium. It will be as big as some of the internationals I have done,” Owens, who has refereed 26 tests, said.
“I love the Heineken Cup, people are so passionate about their region. I would say that 99 per cent of people at these games are very passionate rugby supporters and it makes for a brilliant atmosphere,” he said.
“That isn’t always the case with internationals as you have a different type of fan. There are more hospitality seats and perhaps some people who wont watch any other rugby than Six Nations in a year.”
“The Munster-Leinster semi-final at Croke Park in 2009 is one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in. I was aware it was more than a rugby game, it was an event, but it wasn’t until I watched the game back to review it that I thought 'that was a special game, that was a privilege to be part of',” he said.
“The first-ever rugby game at Soccer City, South Africa-New Zealand that was a hell of an atmosphere too.”
And whilst the lack of Welsh participation in the business stage of the competition means the door is open for Owens to join Chris White as the only men to have taken charge of three finals, he knows what he would prefer.
“I would happily not do the final and see a Welsh side win it,” he said. “I don’t know what is going wrong for the regions, we definitely have the players. Have they got it right on or off the field? I don’t know, but it’s very sad.”
“ I do think that everyone should be getting behind the regions though. It is great that we still have passionate rivalries like Cardiff-Ponty, and we should never lose that because that is what makes rugby special in this country but I do think some people need to grow up a bit and get behind the regions in the Magners and Heineken,” he said.
“We are only a small country and we need to pull together.”