For credibility’s sake, give us neutral umpires
The AFL needs to act urgently to introduce neutral umpires for all matches. I was staggered, after being an interested follower of a discussion on The Roar last week about the perceived imbalance of free kicks in games involving Sydney, to discover that no fewer than 20 of the 28 field umpires listed in the league’s official guidebook are based in Victoria.
Yes, that’s right: more than 70 per cent of the men in control of a supposedly national competition come from one of the five states involved.
Of the remaining eight, four are from Western Australia, three from South Australia and one from Tasmania, with none from either Queensland or NSW.
One of the Victorian umpires did spend some time serving an “apprenticeship” in the AFLQ before being appointed to the AFL panel, and another began his career in Tasmania before moving to Victoria more than a decade ago.
This is an outrageous situation.
Let’s be clear, nobody is suggesting any umpire consciously cheats.
But that’s not the point – it’s all about perception, a vital factor when it comes to gaining and keeping the confidence of the people who fork out good money week after week in the hope that their team will get a fair go.
It’s an undeniable fact that young Victorians who end up being umpires have almost invariably spent their childhoods barracking for one of the (too) many teams in their home state.
And with the belief that the only true home of the code is Victoria – an attitude they must find hard to overcome, no matter how hard they try, when they get control of a whistle at the highest level.
This is an area that other football codes have addressed successfully.
Soccer has neutral referees for all meaningful international matches, so if Australia is playing Qatar in a World Cup qualifier the ref could be from somewhere like India, Iran or Singapore.
An even more stringent policy is the order of the day for international tournaments like the World Cup finals, where the officials must come from a different confederation from the two teams involved.
Rugby union events like the Six Nations and the Super 14 also have neutral referees, and even in Sydney-centric rugby league, Queensland refs have been used going back as far as, and even further than, the late lamented “Grasshopper”, Barry Gomersall.
The AFL will no doubt say there are two reasons it can’t use neutral umpires – it will say there aren’t enough of them of the required standard outside Victoria, and it will bleat about the extra expense involved in sending umpires from Sydney or Brisbane to Perth or Adelaide.
If the first of those two arguments is true there is only one place to lay the blame, and that’s with the AFL itself.
And as for the second, it’s rubbish.
The AFL is a big enough, and, as it continues to remind us, wealthy enough, organisation to overcome both these hurdles, with training programs for the first, and an adjustment of spending priorities, and/or appropriate sponsorship, for the second.
Games between teams from Victoria and South Australia need to be umpired by officials from WA, SA, Queensland and NSW, and so on.
The only time Victorians should officiate in matches involving interstate teams is when they’re playing each other, such as Adelaide v Sydney or Brisbane v Fremantle.
Until that happens the perception will remain, regardless of the reality, that it’s Victoria v the rest, rather than a truly national competition.
Particularly while the AFL persists in its stubborn refusal to include a Tasmanian team, instead leaving the state off the agenda, just as it has been regularly left off maps of Australia for countless years.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, so to speak, two pertinent things emerged from round three – St Kilda might at last have become a credible contender, although I’m still reserving judgment until closer to the business end of the season; and Richmond’s terrier-like first quarter exposed some glaring deficiencies in the Western Bulldogs’ structure, although the Tigers didn’t have the skills or the endurance to go on with it for the rest of the match.