UMPIRE Shaun Ryan has returned from a three-year lay-off after being persuaded by the AFL’s umpiring chiefs to bring his vast experience back to the game.
Ryan was one of the best umpires in the ranks when he walked away at the end of 2011, having umpired the previous five Grand Finals, including the replay of 2010.
But between umpiring, being a husband and father to three young children and the daily commute from his home at Torquay on the Victorian surf coast, something had to give. So he put the whistle away.
But he wasn't forgotten at AFL House and when Wayne Campbell and Haydn Kennedy took control of the umpiring department last year, an immediate concern was the paucity of experienced umpires. And after lots of coaxing, particularly from Kennedy, Ryan decided late last year to make his comeback.
Ryan was among the four umpires to take charge of the Geelong-Adelaide game last Thursday.
"Hayden always thought I retired too early," Ryan told AFL.com.au. "He was coming at it that when I get older I might regret giving it up three to five years early.
"There was an opportunity to fill a role and perhaps take on a mentoring role as well."
When Ryan last umpired there were eight games each weekend. The addition of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney has increased that by one game a weekend and given the team structure the umpires have started to adopt – having the same three umpires work together for weeks at a time – the ideal structure is for each grouping to feature one of the more experienced umpires.
Ryan, with 215 games under his belt, fits that bill.
Still, footy has changed even after three years away and Ryan has had to adjust. There are score reviews and sliding tackles, and even just the way teams structure up.
"It was only the NAB Challenge game, but it was pretty quick," he said of the Cats-Crows clash. "It seemed the teams really moved up and down, so that basically both teams are inside the same 80m of the ground.
"When I retired that was starting to happen but it's now extreme where teams flood up and flood back. There's a lot of running."
At 39, there were a few niggles to his calves and hamstrings when he resumed umpire training. The short, sharp repeat sprints required of field umpires use different muscles than the long-distance triathlons he ran while on his sabbatical.
But there is also the appeal of being something of a pioneer.
"At 39, not everyone gets the chance to come back and be involved in an elite sport," he said. "My family were all for it, so I thought why not give it a crack.
"I thought it would be a good challenge and I like a good challenge."
Meanwhile, a new website and TV campaign has been launched to attract more to people to umpiring.
Using some great Go-Pro vision, a 30-second TV commercial has been created to demonstrate just how close the umpires get to the action. It really is the best seat in the house, and it illustrates just as significantly that the game cannot take place without them.
Check out the campaign at getinthegame.com.au