THE PLAYERS might be the stars of the game but the umpires are doing as much as anyone to keep the show on the road, including leaving their lives behind to fly interstate with barely a few hours'notice to ensure the season can continue.
As it became apparent last Wednesday that Victoria faced a fourth COVID lockdown, the call went out to the umpiring fraternity to find out who could pack their bags, leave the rest of their life at home and fly interstate before tighter restrictions were put in place.
Three umpires were on a flight to NSW a few hours later, with another six field, eight boundary and four goal umpires boarding planes the next morning.
Field umpires Jeff Dalgleish and Daniel Johanson had an exceptionally hectic weekend, umpiring the West Coast-Essendon clash on Saturday night before flying to Adelaide early on Sunday morning to officiate in the Port Adelaide-Fremantle clash that afternoon.
The pair arrived in SA just 90 minutes before the first bounce of the Power-Dockers clash. Dalgleish eventually ran 25.5km over the two games played in less than 24 hours, while Johanson covered 24.5km.
There are now 24 umpires in NSW and three in Queensland who have left their home state to ensure they can cross state borders and officiate matches around the country when needed.
One of the most experienced umpires in the game, Simon Meredith, remained in Victoria last weekend to officiate the North Melbourne-St Kilda clash but is now staying in a Sydney hotel and waiting to hear where and when he’ll be needed next.
"We all had to firstly make the decision whether to go and then check with the families. I was a bit nervous given last year, when I was meant to be away for three weeks and it ended up being four and a half months," Meredith said.
"But we just want to do our part to get the season away."
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Whichever match Meredith is umpiring will be his 400th, making the 46-year-old just the seventh VFL/AFL field umpire to reach the milestone.
Meredith almost had to wait an extra week to reach the mark after a shanked kick from the Saints’ defender Jimmy Webster hit the umpire in the head, but he has now passed all of the standard concussion protocols.
"It’ll be nice to reach 400 games too, and get some recognition, but it’s probably more exciting for my family and friends to celebrate those achievements. I’ll just be focusing on umpiring the game and hopefully doing well in it," he said.
The AFL's executive general manager of football, Steve Hocking, lauded the umpiring group's willingness to uproot their lives at short notice again to keep the competition flowing.
"The logistics of umpires over the past week has seen 27 of our umpires relocate with short notice and I praise the team for their support of the broader competition," said Steve Hocking, executive general manager of football.
"The professionalism from the umpiring group and their willingness to make personal sacrifices to keep the season going is to be commended.
"I want to call out Jeff Dalgleish and Daniel Johanson who umpired in back-to-back games in Perth and Adelaide, and the four field umpires who did a stellar job in their first AFL games."
The four debutants to step up were AFLW and WAFL umpire Jordan Fry, AFLW and SANFL umpires Tom Bryce and Giles Lewis, and recently AFL-listed umpire Nathan Toner.