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Fourth ump will reduce off-the-ball incidents, says Nicholls

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 23: Former Blues legend Mike Fitzpatrick hands the match ball to Umpire Mathew Nicholls during the 2017 AFL round 01 match between the Carlton Blues and the Richmond Tigers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 23, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)
Matthew Nicholls receives the match ball from former AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick

THE INTRODUCTION of a fourth field umpire could help reduce the number of off-the-ball incidents during a game, experienced whistleblower Mathew Nicholls says

The rough treatment of players behind the play has been a hotly debated topic in recent weeks, with Tigers star Dustin Martin the latest victim, after receiving some close attention from Brisbane Lion Nick Robertson last Sunday. 

After the game, Richmond coach Damien Hardwick put the onus on the umpires to help stamp out the behaviour, by paying more free kicks.

While Nicholls said a fourth umpire wouldn't eradicate off-the-ball incidents, he acknowledged that another pair of eyes would be beneficial to the game.

"Certainly, the fourth umpire has value in that situation," Nicholls told AFL.com.au.

"I did a game out here last year between Melbourne and Hawthorn and we had four umpires, and we were really glad we had four, because there was plenty happening off the ball and we were able to use that additional resource to manage a lot of those issues.  

"Introducing a fourth [umpire] to help with that kind of thing would be fantastic. I don’t know that it would necessarily stamp it out of the game, but it might help."

The AFL has trialed the use of four field umpires during the bye rounds for the last two years, but is yet to make a decision on introducing it permanently during the home and away season.

Nicholls said the umpiring department was still working through the pros and cons of introducing a fourth whistleblower, with one major benefit a reduction in the physical demands. 

After making his debut in 2003, Nicholls will adjudicate his 300th AFL match on Saturday at the MCG when Melbourne face Port Adelaide.

Over his 15 years in the AFL system, Nicholls has had a decorated career to date, having umpired in two Grand Finals, as well as officiating around the world in Dublin (2015 International Rules series), Wellington in New Zealand and most recently China.  

"I've been very lucky so it's hard to narrow it down to one particular highlight," Nicholls said.

"I remember the mark Nick Riewoldt took against Sydney at the SCG, running back with the flight of the ball, and paying that mark and watching that unfold. Little things like that stick in your memory.

"It's fair to say I've been pretty spoilt."

Nicholls is one of the hardest working umpires, often completing extra sessions outside of normal training hours.

When pre-season started late last year, he returned in great condition with his skin folds as good as ever, which is why head umpires coach Hayden Kennedy didn't hesitate to offer Nicholls the opportunity of umpiring two games in round one.

Kennedy said Nicholls' sustained success as an umpire has been due to his persistence and dedication.

"I remember when I was towards the end of my umpiring career and he was just starting out and he was struggling a bit," Kennedy said.

"But he kept at it and said to me, 'the winds will change one day'. Eventually they did and he started to get the success that he'd been working for."

Retirement isn't yet on Nicholl's radar, but he has no plans to try and break Kennedy's record of 495 games.

"I'll be about 50 if I try to do that," he joked.

The veteran does however plan to continue umpiring at the elite level for another five years in the hope of notching up 400 games.