In this stats driven environment of AFL football we can be forgiven for looking at James’ career of 12 years (2003-2014), 136 games and assume his presence was a solid one and move onto the next stat.
However, we all fall into the trap of not looking at the man involved. Coming from Canberra and making the AFL list as a goal umpire is a feat in itself. James was only the second goal umpire to be appointed from Canberra, the first in over a decade and the first locally grown product.
Remembering that when James made the list Sydney only played 10 games at home in any season and there four goalies based in the region. James was on the list for 3 years and accumulated 18 games. Yet he umpired 33 in his next 3 years. He had to wait in line for his opportunity and then grab it with both hands when it came.
James and all of his interstate contemporaries accept it for what it is and move forward. He met the same fitness requirements, undertook the same coaching regime, wishing and hoping for his big break. In between AFL fixtures James accumulated over 300 games in Canberra as both a goal and field umpire, umpiring State league finals in both disciplines and 3 grand finals in Canberra 1st grade as a field umpire.
“I took on field umpiring to keep my fitness up to the required level for goal umpiring. I started with boundary but found it a bit hard to back up in the goals, particularly at AFL level. It also helped with my general knowledge of the game and my reading of the play” To this day he skites he can bounce better than many of our current field umpires!
James’ first chance at State league level as a field umpire came from himself. “We were in‑between coaches and I was looking after things, we came up short one weekend and ended up appointing myself to my first game.”
James’ background wasn’t in AFL, it was in rugby union. He wanted to learn more about our indigenous game so he responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking umpires. Three years later he was offered his first AFL contract.
“In 2003 I was coached by Ken Ray out of Sydney and Colin Larter in Canberra. For many years I was the only Canberra based umpire on the AFL panel, and the only AFL goal umpire for most of my career. I roomed with most field umpires and often SA boundary umpires in those early years. I learned a lot about football on those trips and particularly what it really takes to be prepared for modern footy.”
James worked for the ATO and had many opportunities to travel with his work and took the opportunity to train with fellow umpires on those trips. “Coming to Melbourne was an eye opener and I learned a lot from those trips. I remember one session out on the ground talking positioning. You look around and you have 5-6 grand final umpires, multiple people with 200 or more games. Without a national coaching structure it’s really difficult for other groups to filter down that information and experience. Even last year in Hobart, 4-5 years after that night in Melbourne, I could talk to Mark Ensbey and the Tasmanian group about the same issue.”
In 2004 I did my pre-season time trial in Adelaide, maybe 2005 in Sydney. There wasn’t many states I didn’t train in over the years and I made many friendships.
Fast forward to the current day and it is easy to see James working in a mentoring role with all of his Canberra based colleagues. Dale Puren and Rose O’Dea have certainly benefitted from his tutelage. Even boundary umpires, Chris Simms and Scott Gordon credit James with having a significant impact on their early days on the list. Kate Griffiths (now in the VFL) was another of James’ mentees.
“Having been one of the only home grown products, followed by the success of Luke Roberts on the boundary, it opened up opportunities for Canberra umpires, not just through my experience but with exposure of the coaches to the AFL. We quickly developed a group in Canberra with lots of potential and its sad to see that 10 years of effort and success so quickly eroded.”
In context James holds the record for the most number of games by a NSW/ACT goal umpire at 136. In fact he is only 5 games behind Luke Roberts (retired boundary umpire) all time record for an umpire from NSW/ACT of 141.
“We both had some injuries, but Luke had the opportunity to run 20+ games some years that goalies just didn’t get. But in the end it was my broken my leg in the GWS v WCE game that allowed Luke to get past me”. Incidentally, after the break occurred in the first quarter James continued to umpire until the end of the game.
Early on, one of James’ best mentors was Steve Murphy.
“Steve taught me a couple of things. Firstly that every AFL game is a gift. Secondly that as a goal umpire, any game can help you practice your skills. It might not be an AFL game, but maybe the more unpredictable the football the more challenging to get it right every time. That was important early on when you were sometimes umpiring AFL footy maybe every 4 or 6 weeks.”
Some of the more memorable moments in James’ 136 games include the Western Bulldogs come from behind win against the Kangaroos at Manuka in 2004. The Bulldogs kicked seven goals in the final quarter and Brad Johnson made a meal of the last one 17 seconds before the final siren to get his team over the line by a few points.
“That was one of my best games early in my career and gave me a lot of confidence that I was at the right level.”
“Over my career I managed to do most things. I umpired around the country, umpired draws, was involved in some great moments and some close games. I had my ups and downs. The only thing I missed was finals – in my good years it was a bit too competitive and in the other years I wasn’t consistent enough.”
“Nothing surpasses your first game, round 11 2003 at ANZ Stadium. Sydney played Essendon. That feeling has never left me.”
2015 has a different feel to it. James has his golf handicap at 12 (and he hopes on the way down) and spends most of his spare time with his wife and daughter. He is missing the cut and thrust of game day but not the cold winter months of Canberra training. Who knows what the future holds but he would make the perfect coach, either goal or field at some stage down the track.
Congratulations James on becoming an AFLUA life member.