AFL field umpire Stuart Wenn retired at the conclusion of the 2014 AFL season after umpiring 341 games of AFL football. The statistics tell only part of the story. They provide a measure of the contribution Wenny has made to AFL football. On retirement, Stuart was 10th on the all time list of field umpires. This was even more remarkable considering his relatively late start. Wenny made his debut in Round 21 of 1995, Geelong v Footscray at Kardinia Park. He was called up on the night before the game to replace umpiring legend Dennis Rich who had to withdraw through illness.
Wenny had done the hard yards on the VFL development and state league squads. 4 years of working his way through the ranks. What he displayed in those early years was prodigious athletic ability, a strong desire to improve himself, and an impatience to get to the top. He was talented, ambitious, and passionate about his umpiring. His commitment to physical preparation was a hallmark of his umpiring career.
Wenny had an important edge on his umpiring colleagues, great genes. His father, Rex, was a VFA umpiring legend and an important mentor throughout Wenny’s career.
The hard work eventually paid off, and Wenny cemented his place on the list. The 1990s was a period of dramatic change for AFL umpiring. The introduction of the 3 umpire system created opportunities, but it also marked a period of industrial disputation, and high turnover. Wenny saw many of the umpires he had come through the system with come and go. In 1997 the senior list was cut from 45 to 32, the cuts ran deep and many fine umpires were let go. The coaches saw the potential in Wenny, and his early promise, and persevered with him. Their faith paid off as Wenny developed into a remarkably consistent, dour and hardened AFL umpire.
So what has made Wenny such a survivor? Several characteristics stand out. He is an accomplished communicator. This is particularly apparent off the field. He has often been called on to do interviews and never missed a beat. I’ve observed him first hand speaking a public engagements for community groups, schools, umpiring bodies, and various other settings and he is without a doubt the most accomplished ambassador for umpiring promotion and development that we have seen in the last 20 years. This was recognised early on by AFL National Umpiring Development Manager, Adrian Panozzo, who hand picked Wenny to accompany him on a trip to the USA to spread the word. Wenny has given an enormous amount of time in this regard, consistently undertaking more promotional appearances than any other umpire. He shines in the limelight, has honed his speaking skills over the years, even reading the news for NAB’s in house news service. But what comes across most is his passion for his chosen sport of AFL and umpiring.
Wenny’s a gifted runner, and covers the ground in AFL matches as well as anyone. He is a great team player, having won multiple best team man awards. He is a great contributor to coaching sessions, with the only criticism being his tendency to make a completely inappropriate and politically incorrect joke at the most inopportune moments. You sometimes wonder whether Wenny has been trapped in a skit from the Late Show.
What I remember most about Wenny is his absolute commitment to self improvement. I have had the privilege of being his bouncing partner for nearly all of his career. While most of us practice our bouncing each training night, Wenny is invariably the last to leave training, as they are turning the lights off, saying his mantra “Just one more straight one”. On my estimates, he has had more practice bounces in his career than any umpire in the history of the game. He has bounced till his fingers have bled. It is this unwavering commitment that has seen Wenny achieve AFL life membership, and retire with an enviable record of 341 games. His last season was a tough one, having missed a chunk of games through injury. The mind was willing, but the body was crying out from the years of punishment.
And so it came to the final round, a big crowd at the MCG, clash of traditional rivals, Carlton v Essendon, and Wenny ventured onto the arena for the final time. One could not have scripted a more appropriate finish. The game ended in a draw, only the third draw of his career. And Wenny departed the MCG for the final time to a surreal environment. The scenes in the change rooms afterwards were fitting for such a stellar career. Family, friends, and a large contingent of the umpiring fraternity turned out to pay their respects. Wenny displayed the passion and emotion that he is best known for.
Wenny has left an indelible mark on the umpiring group. He was a role model for young umpires, and a marker for the veterans. Retirement allows him to make up time with wife Jane, and his two boys Darcy and Harrison, who were fortunate enough to share a lift for a lap of honour around the MCG on Grand Final day.
Wenny’s final official commitment was at the AFLUA’s awards function. The celebration of his retirement was marked by the presentation of a fitting tribute book that includes photos and messages from all those who have played a part in his career. Wenny’s contribution to the AFLUA has been significant, particularly his advocacy in the last round of CBA negotiations. He has been at the top of Howie’s speed dial list for much of the last 4 years.
So it was a fitting full stop to end with an AFLUA party, Wenny holding court at the microphone, cracking jokes, but also shedding a tear for an umpiring life lived to the fullest. Wenny paid tribute in particular to an incredibly supportive family, his mother, Lola, who has been his counsellor, his father Rex, who has been his mentor, his devoted wife Jane, and his two adoring boys who now get to have their dad back on weekends. Wenny gave all of himself to umpiring and for that we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
Written by: AFLUA Life Member and former AFL Umpire – Stephen McBurney