Round 1 Debuts for Burke, Lowe and Watkins

Round One is always an exciting time in the umpiring world, with another long pre-season complete and the chance to finally get stuck into the real deal. For three umpires in particular, Round One, 2014 will always be special.

Field umpires Tom Burke and Sam Lowe made their SANFL IGA League debuts, as did boundary umpire Corey Watkins.

Burke, 28, and Lowe, 23, have followed similar paths to League level since arriving at the SANFL in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Burke has done 59 Reserves matches whilst Lowe has done 57. They umpired the 2011 Under 18s Grand Final together and Lowe was chosen for last year’s Reserves decider.

A lawyer by occupation, Burke started umpiring football in 1998 at the North Adelaide Junior Football Association (now NEMJFA). It would be a whole decade later when Lowe first picked up a whistle, after giving up his days as a promising junior footballer. His first reaction upon seeing last week’s appointment was relief followed by pure excitement, whereas Burke had a different response.

“When Col (High Performance Umpires Coach Colin Rowston) told me on Monday night, I was surprised at first,” said Burke. “I was hopeful of a crack at some stage in 2014, but I didn’t expect it to be Round One.”

Both umpires felt well equipped to do the job with a full quota of League games during the trial match period sealing the deal for a Round One berth. Lowe umpired Sturt’s win over Glenelg while Burke was a little further south at Hickinbotham Oval for South Adelaide versus West Adelaide.

Lowe pointed out that it was extra special for him to umpire with close friend Patrick Lally.

“Patty and I started in the same year at the SANFL and went through the grades together, so it was cool to debut with him,” he remarked. “And Croz (field umpire Andrew Crosby who also umpired on the night) is like a father figure to the guys and a great influence out there.”

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TEAM: Sam Lowe (middle) said it was great to umpire his first League game with with Patrick Lally (left, 14 games) and Andrew Crosby (right, 123 games) on Friday night. PHOTO: Gordon Anderson.

Both debutants were relieved to put their first bounce straight, which left them to focus purely on the increased speed and intensity at League level. Lowe said Michael Coad’s screamer was a particular highlight, and Burke couldn’t single out one moment above another.

“[My highlight was] just the privilege of umpiring League football. To umpire the best football in the state is an amazing opportunity.”

Corey Watkins, a 19-year-old Health Science student, took a remarkably different path the running the boundary in the season-opening Norwood and Port Adelaide clash on Thursday night. After a recommendation from his running coach at the time, Watkins commenced boundary umpiring in 2007 for his brother’s college games. His next few years were unique to say the least.

“I did a handful of SANFL Under 17s games in 2008. I remember one of those games because I had a recalled throw-in and almost cried myself to sleep,” laughed Watkins. “Then I was invited to join the SANFL Academy prior to 2009, but came down with the mumps which blew my chances.”

From there, he went out to the Amateur League and earned the 2012 and 2013 Division 1 Grand Finals. After persistent efforts from SANFL Boundary Umpires Coach Hayden Cook, Watkins was finally able to commit his time properly to the SANFL- a move which paid off in spades.

A strong pre-season as well as years of competitive running and Amateur League experience provided Watkins with his League debut after incredibly only umpiring his first Reserves game the week before. He said that the mentoring from young AFL boundary umpire Matt Konetschka helped him adjust to the level quickly, while his teammates on the night, Sean Burton and Steve Wilson, were also very inclusive. He described Wilson as a “friendly face who kept me calm”.

“At the Amateur League I was more of a leader, trying to show people what to do. But now, at SANFL level, all of a sudden I’m not a leader, so it was fantastic to have those guys around me.”

Once the dust had settled, Watkins said he was just pleased that his feedback was positive, although coach Cook was quick to remind him that he was “running with the big boys now”.