Dozens of aspiring AFL umpires lap the boundary of Victoria Park.
Red and white tops separate VFL umpires from the wannabes, though who’s who is often lost in the dim light from a single tower at the Yarra end.
It’s AFL Umpiring Victoria’s rookie night, a chance for whistleblowers of the Metro District leagues to train alongside the semi-pros.
Through running drills and exercises for each umpiring discipline, the squad of young men and women is pushed as hard as any footy team. But with the weather brisk on this mid-August Tuesday night, you wonder why they’re here.
Umpiring seems a thankless job at the best of times, characterised by abuse from players and spectators once a week and having any mistakes you make heavily scrutinised the other six days.
But Will Harris, 18 and currently studying and Melbourne University, says the experience is in fact very rewarding.
“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… I love it really,” Harris says.
“An AFL umpire is really the pinnacle, and if I can get there it’d be a dream come true.”
Harris cut his teeth in the Essendon District Football League for three years, graduating from the under 10s to the reserves to his first senior division match as umpire in 2013.
He has much praise and respect for his mentors. “Without the support and knowledge of the EDFL coaches I wouldn’t have the opportunity to partake in the VFL rookie squad and potentially get selected. District is definitely where you learn how to be an umpire, VFL is about honing those skills.”
Harris and 20 others are here tonight as part of the VFL rookie program, aimed at giving local league umps a taste of the big time.
Harris had a similar experience to rookie night last year when he took part in the AFL Mates Program. The program, now in its 11th year, saw Will paired with current AFL umpire Brendan Hosking to promote his development.
Hosking agrees that umpires have all the skills they need to do the job by the time they graduate from the district leagues. “A lot of the times, their decision making’s quite good,” he says, “so my job in the Mates Program was more about fine-tuning aspects of umpiring like where to position yourself for stoppages, the level you need to perform and how to run.”
Hosking wrote his name into the history books earlier this year when he marked a kick by Port Adelaide’s Hamish Hartlett in the Power’s match against Carlton in Round 12. Funnily enough, he didn’t teach Will how to do that – “I won’t hand down all my tricks!”
Nor was dealing with umpire abuse discussed. As Harris explains, that’s something you need to be on top of from the very beginning.
“Down in my local leagues, our head coach says coming from players we have tolerance to abuse, but for abuse over the fence line you’ve gotta suck it up. When I started at 13 and the parents were yelling it went to my head, but eventually I grew a thick skin. You kind of realise abuse part of the package when you umpire.”
With umpiring errors invariably in the news, Hosking has some thoughts on how to make on-field decision-making more effective. At the end of the 2014 season, he and 30 other AFL umpires and staff flew to New York on a study development trip in officiating professional sport.
“We go to see NBA, NFL and NHL matches as part of that, and a message that came out of that loud and clear was that in the AFL 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 the Brisbane v Gold Coast match.”
Later in the night, the young Chelsea Roffeys and Ray Chamberlains are briefed by AFL Victoria’s umpiring division on the fitness tests they need to pass to be nominated for VFL next year. From the VFL, the next step is the grand final, and then it’s the big time.
Though the incentive of getting paid is there from the local level, most of the umpires at Victoria Park share in Will’s sentiment that they do it because they love it. Umpiring AFL is just as much of a dream as playing it for those interested, as Harris 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.”