An AFL boundary umpire’s tale of life in a hub, grand final nerves and a footy year like no other

My partner and I left Melbourne early in the morning of the first Monday in July.

It felt a bit like a mystery flight because it was only a short time before we left that we actually knew where we were going.

We were off for what I thought was going to be a few weeks of umpiring AFL footy in one of the interstate hubs before matches would return to Melbourne.

Now 111 days, 25 coronavirus tests, six hotels and 1,000 kilometres of running later, I’m almost ready to head home.

But not before one last mission — today’s grand final.

It’s been an extraordinary journey of ups and downs as I played my small part in trying to keep this game loved by so many Australians going.

Charter flights, COVID tests and round and round ovals

Myself and my partner were both “working from home” in the various hotels we stayed in.(Supplied)

My first task back in early July was trying to organise “working from home” from an interstate hotel at very short notice.

My daytime job is as a journalist in the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom and, fortunately enough, my boss was very accommodating.

One of the early bizarre experiences came as we boarded the charter flight from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport.

Instead of going through the main part of the airport, we waited with hundreds of other AFL players, umpires and staff at a private terminal before wandering straight across the tarmac and onto the plane.

In these COVID times, there’s no food on planes and people are spread out as much as possible.

We checked into our first hotel in Southport on Queensland’s Gold Coast with dozens of other umpires and their families.

With us all sharing the same floor in the hotel and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together, it was very quickly starting to feel like Year 8 camp with all your mates.

There was no leaving the grounds of the hotel under the strict 14-day quarantine rules.

As a boundary umpire, a high level of running fitness is key to the job.

But with limited space, it meant endless laps of the hotel oval.

My boundary colleague Michael Marantelli — who is also umpiring the grand final today — set the record with 21.1 continuous kilometres around the oval during one of his runs.

After one week in quarantine, my first match day had finally arrived.

I was preparing for a Saturday afternoon game at the Gold Coast stadium between Fremantle and St Kilda.

But just before leaving for the match, my spot was suddenly in doubt — the result of my COVID test hadn’t arrived and under no circumstances was any player or official involved in matches allowed to participate without recording a negative result in the lead-up.

Some good work by our hub manager meant he was able to get onto the lab and confirm the result was negative.

AFL umpire Ian Burrows getting a coronavirus test.
The last of about 25 coronavirus tests I had across the 2020 season.(Supplied)

COVID tests had become one of the defining features of season 2020.

We were tested before every match and, if lucky enough, sometimes even a couple of times a week.

By my count, I’d racked up about 25 tests over the last few months — some less enjoyable than others.

The occasional one drew some blood, while my favourites were with one particular guy who was quick and would say “now just a short one up the nostril”.

Often there would be a little bit of jostling in the lines to try and position yourself to get one of the “friendly” testers.

A few weeks turns to a few months

Ian Burrows and partner Sofie.
The 2020 season has been like no other, requiring us to spend much of it in hotels as part of AFL “hubs”.(Supplied)

After one week at Southport, logistical reasons meant it was time to move onto another hotel just down the road.

As with the previous hotel, we shared our accommodation with a couple of footy clubs and families and partners of players and officials.

With coronavirus cases in Melbourne continuing to soar, people gathered around TVs on Wednesday that week as AFL boss Gillon McLachlan announced there would be no more footy in Melbourne for the foreseeable future.

Suddenly, what I thought was going to be a few weeks away was looking more like a few months.

By the start of the next week, we’d arrived at our third hotel, this time in Broadbeach, where we would be pretty settled for the next few months.

Hub life meant limiting your interaction with the public, no sitting down in cafes, restaurants or the like, always social distancing and following strict rules on which umpire colleagues you could hang out with.

In fact, the AFL’s hub rule book ran 17 pages long. And for good reason.

A lot had gone into working with governments and other stakeholders to make sure the season could continue safely.

While being away from home for such a long time and following such tight rules wasn’t always easy, we were fully aware of the hard times so many other Australians were going through, particularly those in Melbourne.

But if we could help keep footy on TV and in the stadiums for the fans, we were happy.

Three matches in just over a week, and a snake encounter

Boundary umpire Ian Burrows, left, is presented with the match ball by umpire Brett Rosebury.
Before moving to Queensland I was presented with the match ball after my 300th AFL game earlier this year — one of the last games in Melbourne for the season.(Supplied)

The next three months of hub life, like 2020 in general, were full of twists and turns and unexpected moments.

Never before had I umpired three matches in just over a week but that’s what came with the “footy frenzy” periods of the season where games were played every day.

Training in this COVID world was a whole different story as well.

No more big group sessions on the track and meetings in theatrettes, but instead running by yourself and coaching over Zoom.

There was one running session I did along a gravel path in a bushy area near Surfers Paradise that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Moving along at just over 3-minute-kilometre pace, I was puffing hard and keeping a close eye on my watch.

Turns out I should have been keeping an even closer eye on the path, because I was centimetres away from stomping on a snake.

I noticed it at the very last second, as it did me. I jumped and it jumped.

Luckily we both escaped unscathed — other than a soaring heart rate that I struggled to bring back down.

A night grand final, outside Victoria

By mid-October, I’d umpired all 18 home and away rounds, with trips to Adelaide and Cairns in between, and three finals.

But the most nervous wait of all was still to come.

The last Sunday before grand final day is always an anxious day for umpires — we’re waiting to find out who has been selected for the biggest match of all.

As soon as I saw the coach’s name pop up on my phone late in the afternoon, my heart rate was again going through the roof.

And as soon as I answered I was immediately listening for hints in his voice of good or bad news to come.

Fortunately for me, it was good news this time.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a few epic grand finals before, including the 2010 draw.

But never has the finale been played outside of Victoria. And never before at night.

This one is going to be special. And I reckon it might just be another classic.

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SA Liberal Party says proposed electorate boundary changes ‘go too far’ ahead of 2022 election

The SA Liberal Party says proposed changes to the state’s electoral boundaries are unnecessary and some “appear to provide disruption” for the “sake” of disruption.

The Electoral Boundaries Commission released its draft redistribution of the state’s electoral boundaries last month, with both of the major parties filing formal responses.

The draft redistribution proposed major changes, including splitting the city of Port Augusta between the electorates of Giles and Stuart, and shifting the city of Port Pirie from the electorate of Frome into Stuart.

That move would give the Government an advantage by making it easier for them to win the seats of Stuart and independent MP Geoff Brock’s seat, Frome.

But the draft redistribution would also disadvantage the Liberal Party by leaving four of its seats with margins of under 4 per cent, as opposed to two seats under 4 per cent before the redistribution.

State director of the SA Liberal Party Sascha Meldrum said the proposed changes in Giles, Stuart and Frome would bring those districts “within the permissible tolerance” but changes beyond that “are not required”.

SA Liberal Party state director Sascha Meldrum described some of the proposed changes as unnecessary.(Twitter)

“The boundary changes — the subject of the draft report — go too far, displacing one in five South Australian electors [240,000 people] from their electorates — many of the seat-specific changes are not necessary and some appear to provide disruption for disruption sake only,” she wrote.

Ms Meldrum also said the predicted population changes are “inherently unreliable”, and are made even more difficult to predict by COVID-19.

“The Liberal Party submits, moreover, that the COVID-19 pandemic may impact on population and demographic changes, and that there is a real risk that any attempt to draw boundaries based on projected electoral data will result in a significant redraw which may turn out to be entirely unnecessary.”

Proposed boundaries ‘favour Liberal Party’

The Labor Party was far less critical of the proposed changes in its submission, but argued part of the proposal shows a “structural disparity in favour of the Liberal Party.”

“Labor has four marginal seats out of 20 on its side of the pendulum and the Liberals have four marginal seats out of 27 on its side of the pendulum.”

“That is, 20 per cent of the seats on the Labor side of the pendulum are marginal, whereas only 14.8 per cent of the Liberal Party’s seats are marginal.

A map showing South Australia's new electoral boundaries.
A map of South Australia’s proposed new electoral boundaries.(Supplied)

‘Significant’ community concern

An Electoral District Boundaries Commission hearing heard further submissions on one of the other major changes, which involves towns around Mount Barker being shifted from the electorate of Kavel into Hammond.

In her oral submissions to the hearing, Mount Barker Mayor Ann Ferguson said the thought of separating the tight-knit communities was causing significant concern.

She said the changes do not meet the specified criteria of “communities of interest” or the “topography of the area”.

“Adjacent growth areas of Mount Barker, Littlehampton and Nairne should be within the same electorate, given the many shared infrastructure and recreational facilities that relate to all three communities.”

A 19th century classical building with columns
The electoral boundaries will influence the make-up of South Australia’s next parliament.(ABC News: Michael Clements)

Ms Ferguson said with the population expanding in the area, it is critical they have “effective state electoral representation” so that there is good understanding of what is needed for the area, and “there is a strong advocate for those communities”.

However, Ms Ferguson did not oppose moving the town Harrogate from Hammond to Kavel.

In his submission to the commission, current Kavel MP Dan Cregan criticised the idea and called it a “radical departure”.

Mr Cregan said it would not be appropriate to separate the commercial centre from the other towns.

A final decision on electoral boundaries is expected to be made in November.

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Knoll in Labor’s sights after boundary redraw

Labor is considering pitting frontbencher Tony Piccolo against axed Marshall Government minister Stephan Knoll at the next state election, with a proposed boundary redistribution shifting his Gawler base into Liberal-held territory.

The draft report of the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission, released on Friday, saw a carve-up of rural seats in SA’s north, with a flow-on effect in the northern suburbs.

The commission proposes shifting around 12,500 voters from the Labor-held seat of Light – primarily from the seat’s suburban heart of Gawler – into neighbouring Schubert, held by Stephan Knoll.

Knoll, who last month resigned from Steven Marshall’s cabinet amid an exodus of frontbenchers and office-holders caught up in the country allowance scandal, will see his margin slashed from a safe 14.4 per cent to just 5.4 per cent – with insiders from both parties privately declaring the seat extremely vulnerable.

Labor insiders say that if the draft boundaries are retained, the Opposition will launch a major offensive to snare Schubert – which could entail convincing Light incumbent Piccolo, the party’s planning and local government spokesman, to switch seats and run against Knoll in 2022.

One source said the decision would rest with Piccolo, but noted: “If Tony was to do that, it will receive support from the party.”

Tony Piccolo is making no comment on his political future for now. Photo: Kelly Barnes / AAP

It would present a difficult choice for the shadow minister, who for much of his parliamentary career has battled against the tide in a marginal seat. Now, with redistributions and his own electioneering having helped transform Light into a relatively safe Labor stronghold on a nominal 12.8 per cent, he faces the prospect of having to instead shift a 5 per cent-plus Liberal margin to his favour.

Piccolo told InDaily today that caucus members had undertaken not to comment on the proposed boundaries as “the party wants a chance to digest the results first”.

“It’s up to the party to now come to a position [so] it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment in the short term,” he said.

But Gawler mayor Karen Redman told InDaily the town was “aligned more north than south”.

“We align ourselves to the Barossa a bit more… we’ve considered ourselves as a Barossa community,” she said.

However, she added: “I think Stephan Knoll, regardless of his issues, would be very hard to displace.”

Speculation has been rife too that Schubert could be vulnerable to a high-profile independent campaign, with party sources flagging Redman as a potential candidate.

She told InDaily she’d “never say never”, but added: “I haven’t turned my mind to it… and haven’t been approached from an independent point of view.”

“No-one’s approached me as an independent [and] I certainly don’t have the financial backing to run an independent campaign,” she said.

Knoll did not respond to inquiries today.

Independent Geoff Brock has already flagged leaving his mid-north seat of Frome to contest neighbouring Stuart, after the draft redraw shifted his Port Pirie base into Liberal frontbencher Dan Van Holst Pellekaan’s electorate.

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Electoral boundary redistribution could shake up South Australia’s 2022 state election

A redraw of South Australia’s electoral boundaries could see tighter margins in vulnerable Liberal-held seats, a major regional city split in two, and an independent MP jump to a neighbouring electorate.

The draft redistribution of the state’s electoral boundaries, released by the Electoral Boundaries Commission today, has proposed changes to all voting districts except for Mount Gambier.

The changes would directly affect about 240,000 voters.

Major adjustments include splitting the city of Port Augusta between the electorates of Giles and Stuart, and shifting the city of Port Pirie from the electorate of Frome into Stuart.

“The Government gains an advantage, in that Port Pirie has been transferred from Frome to Stuart, which means Geoff Brock, the independent, is now in a much safer Liberal seat,” ABC election analyst Antony Green said.

“That makes it much easier for the Liberal Party to win Stuart and Frome at the next election.”

Mr Brock, who has held the seat of Frome as an independent since 2009, said he was “frustrated and disappointed” with the proposed alteration, which would push Frome further south.

“I plan to run in Stuart for my own community,” he said of the 2022 election.

Geoff Brock, pictured in 2014, says he will still run but now faces an uphill battle.(ABC: Eloise Fuss)

He said the decision to split Port Augusta was an “insult to the people” of the city.

“I also think it is an insult to the Upper Spencer Gulf, to go from three representatives to two, irrespective of who they are,” he said.

The Member for Stuart, Energy and Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan, said he would comment once the final boundaries are decided.

“Before the last election, the draft boundaries announced were nothing like the actual final boundaries,” he said.

Marginal Liberal seats more vulnerable: Green

While the Liberals could benefit from those changes, the proposed boundary redraw could also pose other challenges for the Marshall Liberal government, Antony Green said.

The removal of the ‘fairness’ provision has sort of meant that rural electorates have been set closer to quota in terms of enrolments, and that flows through to the urban areas, and weakens a number of Liberal seats,” he said.

“The Government now has four seats [with margins of] under 4 per cent, as opposed to two seats under 4 per cent before the redistribution.”

Those four seats are King and Newland which include suburbs in Adelaide’s north, Elder in Adelaide’s inner south and the electorate of Adelaide itself.

A map showing South Australia's new electoral boundaries.
A map of South Australia’s proposed new electoral boundaries.(Supplied)

The same measure places Labor as having two seats at or under margins of 2 per cent: Mawson and Badcoe.

“There would be enough close seats here which the Government has to defend which the Labor Party would think, with a good campaign, it could win,” Green said.

“The results of the 2010 and 2014 election show the Labor Party has a very strong ability to run local campaigns to win seats.

But Green said the 2020 redistribution did not go anywhere near “deciding the next election” in 2022.

“The parties still have to win the seats on the boundaries that are drawn,” he said.

SA Liberal director Sascha Meldrum.
SA Liberal Party state director Sascha Meldrum.(Twitter)

State director of the SA Liberal Party Sascha Meldrum said today’s draft redistribution showed the party could achieve the “same result” in 2022 as it did in the 2018 election.

“The Liberal Party will immediately analyse the proposed boundaries and detail provided in the report and prepare a written response to the commission which is due next month.”

In a statement, Labor’s state secretary Reggie Martin said his party acknowledged “the commission has set the number of electors closer to the quota”.

“But we are disappointed that despite achieving 48 per cent of the state-wide vote, Labor only has 42 per cent of the seats on these draft boundaries,” he said.

Interested parties have until September 16 to give feedback on the draft report, after which the commission is expected to gazette the final boundaries in November.

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