Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A week in the life of AFL in South Africa

AFL in South Africa: Part 2

After having such an awesome experience umpiring AFL in Cape Town for just one day, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a whole week watching and umpiring AFL for the National Championships, being held in Potchefstroom earlier this month.

When I was asked whether I would be able to help at the 5-day footy carnival I said yes straight away. Then I remembered that I attend Uni and the carnival was on during Uni, but my answer still remained a yes. Life experiences are better than sitting in lectures, I’d say.

So off I went, on the bus with the Gauteng team to a town known as Potchefstroom, or Potch for short, which is about a 2-hour drive from Joburg. On the way we had to stop at the airport to pick up the other teams coming from outside of Joburg, such as Cape Town. Some of the Cape Town people remembered me from my first AFL experience and it was awesome to see them again. Then onward we drove to Potch.

Our first day of the week was more about setting up the carnival, meeting people and figuring out how the week was going to run rather than playing games. I had the pleasure of finally meeting in person the people who run AFL South Africa such as Phindi and July, who were as lovely as the sounded in emails and phone calls! Once everything and everyone was settled it was time to get to work.

I didn’t exactly know what my job would entail for the next 5 days but I was open to lending as many hands as they needed, and it seemed like they needed a few hands, most of all umpiring hands. Because the AFL is relatively new in South Africa (just over 10 years old), a lot of that time has been spent building the players and focussing on teaching them how to play the game. This means that unfortunately the umpires have been neglected. That’s not criticism to AFL South Africa; it’s just how the game seems to be run, where the players are seen to be a little more important than the umpires. This even happens at home. One day they may learn they can’t have a game without us, we’ll get there.

So, my job was to coach about 11 umpires for the week, teaching them the ins and outs of umpiring. In other words, I had to try and explain my 6 years of umpiring knowledge and experience in about 3 days, then watch and help them umpire for the rest. But before I could do this I had to know who the people were that I was teaching and coaching. So I gathered all the umpires into a little lecture theatre in the offices of the AFL, where for the next few days I would try and teach them a bit of what I knew about umpiring. All up we had about 11 umpires from all over South Africa, ranging from Gauteng (Joburg) to Western Cape (Cape Town) to North West (north-west of Joburg) and KwaZulu-Natal (Durban). There was a real mix of people with varying degrees of experience in umpiring. Some had been doing it for 5 years, some only one month. We had Cleo, Thandie and Unathi from Western Cape, Stoli, Patricia and Lulu from North West, Brigitte, Lerato and Thembi from Gauteng and Siya and Zamo from KwaZulu-Natal. Out of all of them I only knew Cleo and Lerato from the game in Cape Town, so I had many faces and names to learn.

I asked all the umpires three questions when I first met them. What was their name? Where were they from? Why did they do umpiring? When I ask them why they wanted to umpire all the umpires were so surprised that I would ask such a question. For them umpiring was so logical. If they loved the game and wanted to get involved then umpiring was a great opinion, and for the 9 girls that we had, umpiring was their only options. I didn’t really get the answer I was looking for in that question, as to why someone in South Africa would want to umpire AFL footy, but I guess that’s the beauty of the game. Why should there be a reason? Shouldn’t the reason be why not? Why not give a totally new sport a go and see how it goes? (And I think some of the girls had boyfriends or hopeful boyfriends playing, another reason to join...)

Game on! 

The umpires, what a lovely bunch of people :)
Once I had met all the umpires, it was time to become the teacher. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but for umpires reading this blog I spoke to them about positioning, positioning from a throw-in, from a behind, and in general play as well as signals, how to deal with aggressive players and what to do when a fight breaks out. A big concern from umpires is how the players treat them. There is not really the culture that there is in Australia that although you may disagree with the umpire, you can’t really change their mind. The players in South Africa, it seems, think that if they shout loud enough at an umpire, or give them a death stare then the free kick will go their way. Nah uh my friend, that’s not how it works. One umpire was telling me that she even cried because a player was so aggressive towards her. It’s sad that it happens, and I know it can happen in Australia too, but you just don’t want to hear those kinds of things.

My coaching became a little bit difficult when I realised that we had all types of umpires within the group. This means that we had field, boundary and goal umpires, and it was my job to teach them on every aspect, whether I was qualified or not. So I tried to think back to my one game of boundary umpiring and my half a game of goal umpiring to see what I could teach them. I also had to think back to what the other umpires do at my umpiring training at home. Most of the time I’m just running lap after lap after lap, so I do get a chance to see the other umpires. I tried my best to incorporate all the umpires in each drill we did, but in the end it pretty much just ended up being about the field umpire. I tried, but field is all I really know well.

We had a similar session the next morning before we would have to put it all to practice in the game against a Geelong team from St Mary’s football club in the afternoon. St Mary’s had been travelling around South Africa with boys from the under 16 and under 18 teams, I think as a tour of SA Tour/End of Season trip. They’d already played one game against Western Cape in Cape Town and were surprised that they ‘only’ won by 6 goals. Now it was time to take on the inaugural under 18 South African Lions. I, with the help of Cleo and Lulu assigned the umpires to the match. Cleo and Lulu were in the field while the rest were in boundary and goal. I tried to make it that everyone got a turn because I know that they are not exposed to footy very often, so they need all the games they can get.

The game started off well, but after about 10 minutes, St Mary’s just overran SA and beat them by over 100 points in the end. You could tell that these Aussie boys had grown up with footy their whole lives, whereas footy for the South African players is so new. But they fought hard against a very good side. The umpires did well too. Blow outs can sometimes be hard to umpire because the losing team gets so frustrated that they can do stupid things. Lucky this didn’t happened in our game. It was actually the St Mary’s players who were getting a bit narky at some decisions. But I just told them to give the umpires a break and that seemed to work. 

U18 South Africa Lions and St Marys
In the game, I was on the field the whole time, shadowing the field umpires, paying free kicks if they missed them, or getting them to watch how I did some things for a little bit. It was certainly an odd experience because you were in and out of the game, watching all the umpires, the ball and the players. It was a lot to concentrate on but it was fun at the same time. I have no idea if I was being a good coach or teacher at all. Next time I’ll have to get Nev and Marty to link up? Oh, and I also forgot to mention that Potch is a very hot town. It would have been about 30 degrees when we were umpiring, even at 4pm in the afternoon. A bit different from the freezing cold temperatures of a Melbourne winter’s day, with rain lashing across the field and ice cold winds ripping through your uniform. It would have been nice to have the sprinkler system of Cape Town at this game. There certainly would have been a few water fights! 

Brigitte, myself, Charmine and Thembi
The next day there were no games, so this meant that I had some coaching to do. In other words, a 2-hour workshop. I really didn’t have anything planned and had to wing most of what I was doing, but I think it was useful. The main issue with umpiring here is that the umpires don’t really know where to stand and they don’t really anticipate where the ball will go. But that will definitely come in time when they are exposed and watch more footy. It can be a pretty predictable game if you watch enough of it! So we spoke about positioning and also did some practical work on it. To mix things up, in the last 15 minutes of the session I made up a ten question quiz, with umpiring questions as well as footy questions on it. They all got really into it which was great! And they all knew who had won the 2012 Grand Final. Carn the Swannies!

It’s still pretty surreal that there is footy in South Africa, and that even though it is half way across the world, it is still so similar to home, but in some ways so very different. The singing is what makes it incredible. The boys will be on the bus going to the game, on the bus leaving the game, just at the ground or cheering another team, but each time they will sing. I have no idea what they are singing about because it’s in a different language but the harmony of their voices and the beats they make with their feet and hands are amazing. The hairs on the back of my neck would stand up every time I heard them singing. I definitely felt that I was experiencing footy African style! 

Cleo and I

Zamo and I

Dinho and I (he's a player)

Thandie and I

Unathi and I

The next day saw four games being played. It was the Grand Final for the U18 age group of which Western Cape won, as well as the 3rd and 4th positions for the U18s and the open age group. There was also one more game for the team from St Mary’s, their last game before they jetsetted home the next day. They were playing Western Cape. I know that St Mary’s won but I don’t think it was by such a big margin like the last game they played. It was my job to allocate each umpire to the games, to make sure no umpires missed out, or to make sure that some weren’t umpiring too many games. I was helped by the other umpires which was great. Most umpires got to have a go at doing different roles on the ground. I helped out with most games, being on the field, following the umpires around, being their coach. They all did really well and I could see that they had been listening to what I’d been telling them throughout the week, and if they forgot, I’d remind them. It was very tiring, and being slightly under the weather, I was certainly happy for two of the St Mary’s parents to umpire the last game. I, and I’m sure the other umpires needed a bit of a rest.
One highlight of my time in Potch was getting to know new people. Being at Monash, sort of out in the middle of nowhere, it is hard to meet new people and to really get to know them. But being in Potch, it was so refreshing to meet new people, and find out stuff about them, and to see that they shared the same passion that I have of footy. Everyone was so welcoming of me, like I’d been with AFL South Africa for years when it had really only been once before. The umpires were all so lovely and most were willing to learn new things. Only once did a couple of umpires fall asleep when I was teaching them. A good result I’d say. I was just so happy to be able to experience another side of South Africa, out of Uni life and where I wasn't really a tourist. I really felt like I was a part of the organisation, and it is a real credit to Phindi, July, and co, as well as the umpires and players for making me feel this way. I miss all of them very much! But hopefully some of them will be able to come over to Australia and learn from the professionals rather than just me.

All of the umpires... what babes!
The last day of the tournament saw the Grand Final between Gauteng (GAU-TENG!) and Western Cape. Western Cape has been a relatively dominant power in South Africa for a few years so I think people wanted Gauteng to get up for the win. I had allocated umpires for this match, but politics had their way and it was down to me and two St Mary’s guys umpiring the game. This was so because unfortunately they didn’t want any umpire from WC or Gauteng to be the field umpires because they might favour their team. I know this doesn’t happen with the umpires and it’s a not a nice thing to say that could happen, but politics is politics and sometimes it gets in the way. I stuck to the middle of the field the whole time while the other two had the 50s. The organisers were worried that there would be fighting in the game because it was the biggest game of the year, but fortunately there wasn’t. I made sure it didn’t happen.

Gauteng started off really well, but then Western Cape came back. The game was very much an arm wrestle for most of the time. Gauteng did well, then Western Cape did, then Gauteng came back, but in the end it was Western Cape who took home the trophy. Supposedly it was a 10-point margin, but it felt a lot more like 25 points in the end. But no biggy, Western Cape were happy to have won, and Gauteng knew that they had lost. I was pretty pooped when the game was done. Six games in four days is tiring stuff, and being sick made it a little bit harder. So I was relieved that the tournament was finished, but sad to have to say goodbye to people that I’d gotten to know and wouldn’t know when I’d see them again.

Western Cape player Khaya and myself with the trophy 
Oupa and myself

Siya and myself
But it wasn’t time to go just yet. We had to wait for the buses, and in the meantime, us ‘coaches’ went to a local bar/restaurant to pass the time. It was in the African part of Potch and was really cool. We ate some meat, probably beef (I’m not too sure what it was) and pup, a maize, rice sort of thing. It was yummy and a traditional South African dish. Sipho, a guy who works for AFL SA drove me around the town, just to show me what it was like, as well as where he lived. We drove around in Phindi’s awesome car. She has a convertible mini cooper which I will steal one day very soon, as soon as I learn how to drive manual! Watch out Phindi, it’s going to happen!

After the lunch/afternoon tea break, we joined the rest of the buses. But an executive decision had been made by Phindi and myself that I would stay an extra night so I could hang out with her and July. And I’m very glad I did! It was so great to be able to hang out with them, two people I've had lots of communication with through phone and email but hadn’t really met properly. They are both such lovely, funny, kind people who let me stay in their house (once July brought the keys..ah Phindi, good times!).

Phindi I will steal this car. Me with Burgoyne (Benji's boy)

We be cruisin'
 I enjoyed watching July’s amazing and hilarious dancing at a local bar that we went to that night. He would imitate that I was falling asleep, but I swear July, I was just watching the rugby! Although I was extremely exhausted so maybe I was falling asleep…ah it was such an amazing week where I was able to meet some incredible people that I know are going to be my friends for many years to come. I really hope that soon I can go back to Potch to join in with the Nationals again because it was such an awesome experience.

Phindi, the cutest person ever!
July, the man with the best dance moves around!

July and Phindi

To everyone who made me feel so welcome during the Nationals, thank you so much! You really made my week one that I won’t forget. Keep loving footy and hopefully I’ll see you soon, be it in South Africa or Australia!

GAUTENG, over and out!

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