BY SEB MOTTRAM
Another round of the AFL has come and gone. Good stories were plenty for round 16, one of the best rounds to date this season. And while it was far from an ugly round, one aspect of AFL is still disappointing and confusing fans, week in and week out: the umpiring.
Whether due to rule changes, players staging for free kicks, human error, or a combination of the three, the debate surrounding the AFL’s umpiring has never been so fiercely contested.
Tom O’Connor is a 22-year-old Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) umpire who has quickly risen the umpiring ranks to be at the top of his field, having already umpired five grand finals. He has felt the love and respect of his community believing in his good work, but he has also heard the abuse thrown from the crowd over the fence.
As for how AFL umpires have been treated this year, O’Connor is unsure it has been justifiable.
“Without having a go at anyone, I think some of it stems from not knowing the rules and processes umpires have to follow,” O’Connor says.
“There’s some frustration with what the rules actually are, and at the end of the day the umpires don’t write the rules.”
O’Connor’s five years at the VAFA have been incredibly beneficial. The VAFA has dozens of umpires for every week of fixtures, but O’Connor has consistently been selected to umpire the Grand Final every year.
That would give the average punter a fair amount of confidence, maybe even a little bit of arrogance. However, O’Connor doesn’t speak glowingly about himself or his career, and instead spends a fair portion of it praising his VAFA colleagues.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as good and bad umpires, everyone gives it a crack and brings their different experience levels to it,” he says.
“We’re very similar to a footy team in many senses, we do our pre-season, we train our two nights a week and we turn up each Saturday and try to get the job done.
“We just want to go out and do the game justice.”
It’s an interesting perspective for the vast majority who turn up at games to watch their team, but do not think about the men in green.
According to O’Connor, there are three teams out on the field - umpires included. But as with any other team, and as we’ve seen play out in the AFL this year, umpires are not immune to fans’ criticism. One might say umpires are far more likely to draw their ire.
Anyone who knows a thing or two about footy will also know there are some people who love to turn up to a game to yell. Not with malice or abuse in mind, but to just enjoy the game. O’Connor even says he encourages this behaviour.
“I think understanding people's passion goes a long way to understanding why people get heated at times,” he says.
“You don’t want to turn up to a footy game and for it to be silent, [the noise] shows that people really care, even at a local level there’s a lot of passion.”
O’Connor’s been lucky enough to never cop anything he has had to dwell on for too long; a testament to his skill on the field.
“Overall the majority of my time has been nothing short of positive,” he admits.
“When you’re out there you kind of get absorbed in the game and what’s happening in front of you.
“Most weeks I would barely look at the scoreboard for a quarter, you’ve got to keep focused or the game will leave you behind.”
Umpires also receive criticism from players of the game, but O’Connor believes “open dialogue” can go a long way.
“I’ve found players are always happy to have a discussion on the field, and it goes a long way to keeping the peace.”
O’Connor played AFL throughout his schooling days, but after finishing school, he needed to find a job.
“I was pretty lucky that I had a great bunch of people around me and I enjoyed it, and I wasn’t too bad at it.
“That kind of kickstarted me on the journey, that was five or so years ago and I haven’t looked back.”