On Sunday 22 June 1998 Fremantle defeated Carlton 10.16.76 to 10.8.68. Stephen O’Reilly, Chris Bond and Glenn Manton played well, Docker captain, Peter Mann who kicked a team lifting goal from a tight angle but, at the time, it was an unremarkable match. Now, 103 home and away rounds later, it takes on a special significance for one of the participants. For field umpire Scott McLaren it was the first game in a consecutive streak that this week saw him break Jack Elder’s 89-year-old record when he was appointed to the Sydney versus Melbourne match at the SCG. McLaren and Elder are the only two umpires to ever officiate in more than 100 consecutive home and away matches and only seven other umpires have compiled more than sixty matches in a row at the highest level.
That McLaren has managed to umpire so consistently for such an extended period is testament to not only his decision-making but also his fitness and a work ethic that sees him as one of today’s most respected AFL umpires. From his point of view there are many factors that have contributed to his long run.
“That lack of injuries has been assisted by my wonderful wife, who happens to be a physiotherapist, and treatment of any niggles using assorted anti-inflammatory tablets and creams from my pharmacy!” Scott is also forthright when he acknowledges a drop of luck that was necessary, “I was supposed to be out on rotation last year but someone got the flu and I was back in,” he recalls.
Football has changed much since Elder’s time. Field umpires no longer have to run the ball back to the middle after goals and now there are three of them to administer a game which is rarely mired in mud. Football today moves at a tempo undreamed of prior to the Great War.
McLaren is conscious that comparisons across eras are difficult to make and notes with pride that “just to be mentioned in the same breath as the great Jack Elder is a huge honour.”
Since the beginning of the VFL, form, injuries and selection policy have contributed to umpires’ inability to stretch sequences to substantial lengths. Field umpires have had the greatest opportunities for long runs without a break. At some stage, usually at the height of their careers, the League’s best have managed to show form so good that did not warrant a visit to the country for a long time. In most cases they were also very successful during the finals series of the same period.
Elder’s consecutive run is more remarkable than most. The first match was Geelong v. St.Kilda at Corio Oval on 5 June 1909. Elder was appointed for the next 102 home and away rounds which was remarkable enough but there was more. During this sequence Elder also umpired every final played (19), two matches in the split rounds 9 and 15 1909 and two matches in split round 15 1910. A total of 124 matches in 121 consecutive weeks of League football! He is also the only umpire to have continued a long sequence by umpiring in a different category. The third game of the record sequence (R8 1909) was umpired on the boundary. As a result, the record for a single category is 99 matches as a field umpire.
Quite different in terms of finals success was Bob Nunn’s string of matches from round 16 1957 to round 8 1962. Nunn officiated in his only finals appointment, the 1962 Second Semi-final, well afterwards. He had been unable to break into the finals panel ahead of such luminaries as Allan Nash, Bill Barbour, Frank Schwab and Jack Irving.
Of the current AFL field umpires panel only Brett Allen has a long streak currently underway. At the completion of 2003 his string stands at 85, still a season and half behind the leading pair.
Until very recent seasons, VFL/AFL boundary and goal umpires have never had the opportunity to compile more than five or six games in a row.
Selection policy between 1897 and 2000 shared matches between the members of the respective lists. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the roster was formalised to such an extent that umpires knew that they would be umpiring three weeks in four, with the last week having no football commitments.
In season 2001 the AFL issued a directive that boundary and goal umpires be appointed on the basis their assessment rankings only. Effectively, it meant that the highest ranked umpires had the chance to umpire every week for the first time in VFL/AFL history. This was particularly the case in Victoria where, with the larger list and more matches the directive was more closely followed.
Prior to this directive though, boundary umpire Chris Macdonald did manage a 31 match run from 1995 to 1997 that included five separate rounds in which he umpired two matches – an unprecedented achievement.
Goal umpire Craig Clark has added yet another laurel to his career. No other goal umpire has managed to umpire more than fifty consecutive AFL matches. Clark’s run ended last week after fifty four. David Dixon just missed reaching fifty when he was named to the bench earlier this season after 49 consecutive AFL matches
The final words about Scott McLaren’s achievement can be left to AFL Director of Umpiring, Jeff Geischen as he congratulated him on behalf of the AFL, “This achievement by Scott is an excellent reward for the commitment he has to umpiring. Scott’s preparation is second to none and it is this professional approach which has enabled him to umpire to a consistently high level over a long period of time.”