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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South Sydney Rabbitohs youngster Corey Allan working to control ‘nerves’ as Latrell Mitchell’s fullback replacement

Allan, who was named at fullback on Tuesday in an unchanged Souths team to play Parramatta on Saturday, reflected on the anxiety he has felt over the last two seasons and said he is had to work hard to ‘control’ his nerves heading into each game.

“Your first year playing it’s all you dream about when you’re growing up and in my mind, I was just getting more and more thoughts in my head. That was messing me a bit,” he said.

“I can’t get any more nervous than last year so I’m just improving every week with my mental state.”

Allan said that while he is getting more confidence in himself, the nerves still remain particularly when heading into finals footy.

“All the boys and Wayne tell you just get out there and play your own game and just be confident in yourself,” he said. “Obviously you listen to that, but inside you’re still going to get nervous.”

Allan made history when he became the first player to represent the Prime Minister’s XIII before making his NRL debut in 2019.

Rabbitohs fill-in fullback Corey Allen.Credit:NRL Photos

“The opportunity when I got my first crack last year, it was a bit much for me. I was getting way too nervous before games,” he said. “I’m getting more comfortable every week at fullback I’m just doing my role and the team is getting behind me. Hopefully we can continue our form.”

South Sydney notched a 46-20 victory in the elimination final over the Knights, a week after a historic 60-8 win against the Roosters in their final game of the season.

Tevita ‘Junior’ Tatola said the huge margins were a result of the forward pack dominating in recent weeks.


“A lot of people doubted us here especially our forward pack having Sam [Burgess], Sutto [John Sutton] and George leave,” he said. “I took it a little bit personal hearing all those comments and remarks but at the end of the day we know what we’ve got here in our pack and in our squad.”

Tatola said that while it had taken time to come together as a pack, the forwards are finally starting to find their feet.

“I have full faith we can get the job,” he said. “It’s been showing. Once we work together and do things as a pack then we can do big things.”

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Thiem tames ‘Big Match’ nerves to break Grand Slam barrier

Sep 13 2020; Flushing Meadows, New York, USA; Alexander Zverev of Germany (L) and Dominic Thiem of Austria (R) pose with the finalist and championship trophies (respectively) after their match in the men’s singles final match on day fourteen of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

September 14, 2020

By Sudipto Ganguly

(Reuters) – Dominic Thiem ended a six-year wait for a new name on a men’s Grand Slam trophy on Sunday with his U.S. Open triumph but it was not just Alexander Zverev that the Austrian had to battle on court to fulfil his “life goal”.

Rafa Nadal had denied Thiem the French Open trophy at the previous two editions of that tournament, while at the start of 2020 it was world number one Novak Djokovic who outlasted him in the Australian Open title clash.

Thiem did not have to go through Djokovic, Nadal or Roger Federer, the sport’s ‘Big Three’, during the two weeks at Flushing Meadows this year but that presented a unique mental challenge as the 27-year-old wrestled with long-time friend Zverev, 23, for success in his fourth Slam final.

“We both didn’t face one of the ‘Big Three’, so I guess that was in the back of the head for both of us,” Thiem told reporters. “That’s why we were nervous. (It) was a very good chance for the both of us.”

The experience of playing three Grand Slam finals previously was supposed to be an advantage for the Austrian against an opponent who was featuring in his first final at a major.

But it proved to be a burden for Thiem, who found himself two sets and a break down against the big-serving German before fighting back to win 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(6).

“Honestly, I think it didn’t help me at all because I was so tight in the beginning. Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals,” he said.

“I mean, I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it’s 0-4. It’s always in your head.

“Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free. That’s what exactly happened in the beginning.”

But Thiem managed to quell those doubts and levelled things against Zverev before winning a nerve-jangling final set tiebreak to achieve “a life goal, a dream”.

Thiem hopes to play more freely with fewer nerves in future, having finally tasted success at one of the sport’s biggest stages while also becoming the first man since Croat Marin Cilic won the 2014 U.S. Open to secure a maiden Grand Slam trophy.

He is also the first player born in the 1990s to claim a men’s Grand Slam, and the first outside Nadal and Federer, who both missed the tournament, and Djokovic, who was disqualified, to win a major since Stan Wawrinka’s 2016 U.S. Open triumph.


Thiem will now face heavier expectations in future Grand Slams but has proved he is not one to shy away from pressure.

The Austrian, who faced his share of criticism for playing in Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour event, declined to contribute to an emergency fund for financially struggling lower-ranked professionals during the COVID-19 shutdown, fully aware that he would draw flak from pundits and fellow players for his stand.

Thiem, who has earned almost $27 million in career prize money, stood his ground in the face of criticism, proving that he was ready to chart his own path forward.

Most of Thiem’s early success came on claycourts, where long baseline rallies test a player’s patience and endurance, but he showed the first signs of a smooth transition to hardcourts when he won last year’s ATP Masters at Indian Wells.

Reaching the season-ending ATP Finals further underlined his development while he put any lingering doubts about his hardcourt prowess to rest by progressing to the Australian Open final in Melbourne earlier this year.

“Before I started to work with him, when I saw him like a spectator, I said he can play everywhere, not only on clay,” his coach Nicolas Massu said.

“He can have the same results on every surface because the game, the shots, he’s talented, he has everything. Maybe he needs to adjust small things.”

(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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