It’s not easy being green

You would think AFL Umpires wouldn’t whistle while they worked if it wasn’t part of their job.

Keeping tabs on 36 players all at once is a hard enough job, made harder by a worsening level of abuse from players and fans, according to former whistleblower Stefan Grun.

To quote Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green. Nonetheless, there are people who aspire to be AFL Umpires.

On this Tuesday night in mid-August, the newest crop of hopefuls from the Metro District leagues are taking part in a training session with VFL Umpires at Victoria Park.

One of the rookies, 18 year old Will Harris, says that contrary to popular belief, umpiring is a rewarding pursuit.

“I love it really – I love umpiring,” he smiles. “You get the best seat in the house, right in the thick of the action. You don’t get hit, you’re paid to get fit, you get to make the calls.”

The VFL umpires wear red and the rookies white, and coaches from AFL Umpiring Victoria push the squad as hard as any footy team. After some combined aerobic and fitness drills, the goal, field and boundary umpires split into groups to practise their specific skills.

“Composure is the main thing,” Cameron Nash, Head of AFL Umpiring Victoria says of the most important skill an umpire can have. “Just being able to keep your head when you’re out on the ground and manage 36 players at once. Composure will make a good umpire.”

Composure could also mean keeping a level head in the face of crowd abuse. Will says he learned this skill very quickly after starting umpiring at 13.

“A couple of times in my junior years, when the parents started yelling, I let it get to my head. But eventually you grow a thick skin, you kind of realize abuse is part of the package when you umpire.”

After training, Will and the other rookies are briefed on the next step towards AFL umpiring: nomination for the VFL by their district coaches.

Will began his umpiring path in the under 10’s before moving to Saturday football in his local Essendon District Football League. There he spent three years before umpiring his first senior division match aged 16.

Last year, he took part in the AFL Mates Program. Now in its eleventh year, the program saw Will being mentored by AFL umpire Brendan Hosking as part of his development.

“As mentors, we arranged to go out and watch their local game once or twice during the year, to watch or observe them on gameday. We’d help fine-tune skills like where to position yourself for stoppages, the level you need to perform and how to run,” Hosking explains.

Hosking wrote his name in the history books earlier this year when he marked a kick by Port Adelaide’s Hamish Hartlett in Round 12. AFL Umpiring coach Hayden Kennedy later said he counted 12 umpiring errors in the same match, well above the 2015 target of 8.5 errors per game.

With umpire’s errors invariably in the news, Hosking says support for more umpires on the field is growing within the umpiring community.

“At the end of last season, myself and a group of 30 AFL umpires and staff went over to New York as part of a study development trip in officiating.

“We got to see NBA, NFL and Hockey matches as part of that. What came out really clearly was that we’ve got the lowest official-to-player ratio of any sport in the world.

“I think the more sets of eyes we get out there, the more frees will be able to be paid, that’s pretty obvious and I think we saw that on the weekend during Brisbane v Gold Coast.”

“At the end of the day, umpires are human, and we make mistakes,’ he says. “Our job is to have as little influence on the play as possible, and just contribute to the game in the best possible way.”

Though the incentive of getting paid is there from the lowest levels, most of the young umpires at Victoria Park share in Will’s sentiment that they do it because they love it (and that Holding the Ball is the hardest rule to interpret).

Umpiring AFL is just as much of a dream as playing it for those interested, as will explains. “Just like an AFL player wants to be a player, an AFL umpire wants to be an umpire – for the love of the game.”

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Leave a Comment

*