Life in footy’s firing line
An invitation into the inner sanctum of the weekly AFL umpires review debunks a few myths surrounding the men who adjudicate the national game.
For starters — and contrary to popular opinion — the whistle blowers are not told to focus on a specific part of the game each week, such as holding the ball or deliberate out of bounds.
Each debrief involves watching video of the mistakes and correct decisions made during the previous weekend’s round, meaning a spate of bad bounces or missed high tackles will lead to discussion over what should have been done.
The process under AFL national umpiring director Wayne Campbell is that right decisions are reinforced, rather than interpretations changed on the run mid-season.
Secondly, no bad decision goes unaccounted for.
Each umpire receives a feedback report after every game and has a follow-up telephone conversation with either Campbell or former senior umpire Bryan Sheehan.
They get a rating from below average to excellent and a list of areas needing attention, with comments on every free kick.
Even the non-decisions come under scrutiny.
With debate over the holding-the-ball rule and congestion reaching fever pitch last season, The West Australian accepted an invitation to follow Perth-based field umpire Dean Margetts to learn how the men in lime green are judged behind the scenes.
Margetts has umpired 236 AFL matches over the past 12 years.
Within less than 24 hours of officiating in Essendon’s round-17 win over Collingwood at the MCG, he received his performance evaluation by email. The two-page report goes through 10 free kicks.
Nine of them were assessed as correct, while one — Margetts’ decision not to award a free kick against Essendon’s David Myers for incorrect disposal — was questioned.
Averages show each AFL umpire can expect to make three mistakes per game.
The feedback shows what is being looked for.
Margetts is applauded for protecting the ball carrier and not over-umpiring. And he is criticised for allowing congestion around the ball to go on too long and for his poor bouncing. Out of seven bounces for the match, only two of them were straight.
It mirrors a trend from the entire round, with only 79 per cent of bounces judged straight.
Poor weather that has restricted umpires from practising is discussed as a likely contributing factor.
Sheehan encourages individuals to spend extra time honing the skill. Each umpire will spend up to 40 hours a week, outside of their full-time job, on training, travel and game-day commitments.
“Our head coach is big on effort, fitness and skills — things we can control, ” Margetts said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve done 100, 200 or 300 games, you are still seeking that perfection for your game.”
Twenty-nine of the AFL’s 33 field umpires are based in Melbourne and attend a weekly Monday night debrief.
Of the remainder, Margetts, Luke Farmer and Jeff Dalgleish live in Perth, while one umpire is in Queensland, and they complete their review via a group teleconference every Thursday night.
Vision from the weekend’s games is broken up into different categories each week. This week they include holding the ball and marking contests.
A decision to pay a free kick against Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge after a chase down from Adelaide’s James Podsiadly during the round-17 Friday night match was given a tick.
Umpires are told it was the correct call because Hodge had taken three steps before being tackled from behind and did not correctly dispose of the ball.
The decision by Ray Chamberlain to signal three-quarter time early in the same game as Hawthorn’s Luke Breust burst towards goal was also discussed.
Chamberlain’s on-field conversation with former Hawks captain Sam Mitchell after the siren came in for criticism. The clear instruction is to speak to players formally using their first name rather than nicknames.
Umpires have been told to be succinct when explaining a free kick.
Good communication and teamwork are themes during the 50-minute Perth debrief.
Margetts was praised for a situation midway through the second quarter of his game when a free kick was paid in the centre square after Bomber Zach Merrett was cleaned up.
The WA umpire, who was standing close to Essendon’s goal, told players 60m away from the ball why the free kick was paid and helped diffuse a brewing melee.
The mediation is possible thanks to ear pieces worn by all three umpires that allow them to talk to each other.
The technology was not used in the AFL until seven years ago.
Other vision from the Essendon game is used to encourage high work rate. All three umpires were shown pushing into one third of the ground to help out due to the game’s increased congestion.
Margetts estimates each umpire covers 10-14km a game. The distance travelled has dropped in recent years due to higher congestion levels, meaning positioning to best see a free kick has become more important.
Just like players, umpires are rewarded or dropped based on their performances.
They were reminded they were being considered for the finals.
“There’s always cameras watching and you can’t hide from anything, ” Margetts said.
“You’ve got to make sure that you go out there and if you’re going to blow the whistle, make sure it’s a warranted free kick otherwise you will be exposed.”
© The West Australian
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First published in The West Australian August 8, 2014.