To celebrate National Volunteer week, AFL New Zealand will highlight a couple of key volunteers within the community who give up their time to help the game grow in Aotearoa.
Craig Varcoe is another former AFL player who has recently transitioned into umpiring.
Hailing from Christchurch, Craig is passionate in his volunteer role and more opportunities will arise as he continues to progress on the pathway.
What was your background playing AFL in New Zealand?
I was first introduced to AFL in 2010 through a good friend of mine while playing Rugby in Christchurch. After a few training’s, my first game (for the Christchurch Bulldogs) took place against the Otago Riot and from the first bounce, I was hooked!
I played the 2010 and 2011 club seasons for the Christchurch Bulldogs before being selected for the Canterbury Cobra’s Under 20 team for the 2011 Under 20 NPC competition in Auckland. Following this tournament, I was delighted to be included in the AFL New Zealand Under 20’s Team to complete against a touring Australian team later that year.
My NZ debut came on 8th October 2011 alongside Canterbury AFL (CAFL) mates Sam Blackler, Josh Robles and Martin Swart.
2011 saw the Christchurch Bulldogs finish runner up in the CAFL competition and I was personally rewarded with a spot in the Canterbury Cobra’s Senior Men’s NPC squad to play in Wellington. It was a fantastic tournament with my main highlight being placed in the forward line (normally a defender) after a number of injuries for the final game against Auckland and managed to kick a goal so I was happy.
I missed the 2013 NPC after dislocating my hip in the CAFL Grand Final before returning to the field in 2014 for my final season as a player.
How was the transition from player to umpire?
A lot harder than you think! My first couple of games were spent following CAFL’s more Senior Umpires – President and 2019 AFL New Zealand Volunteer of the Year 2019 Stephen Langridge, Dave de Cuevas and Anthony Calderone – before I was allowed a whistle.
Learning and understanding the rules took a long time.
Positing on the field was hard to get used to at first. There were a number of early games where I would end up close to the contest before someone would yell “Ump, get out of the way!”
What is the drive and motivation to want to continue volunteer umpiring?
It’s a wonderful experience being out in the middle of the ground and watching the progression and development of players, their skills and the game in New Zealand. A prime example of this is impact the 2018 Level Two AFLNZ Academy players had during the 2019 NZ AFL Premiership season.
Finally, I loved playing the game – the banter, friendships and on-field competition is something that will stay with me for life. Whether it was at club, provincial or national level games could only happen if there was an umpire(s), and since I can no longer play, umpiring allows me to give back to the game and provide others with the same experiences and opportunities that I have enjoyed through the sport.
What have been some of the highlights in your umpiring career?
The 2018 ANZAC Series in Wellington is one memorable highlight. It was my first taste of International footy and it did not disappoint!
Alongside my good mate Tim Stevens, we controlled the first of two games for the NZ Level Two Academy team against a well drilled Mornington Peninsula. Tim has been guiding hand in my umpiring development and it was an absolute honour to be out in the middle with him.
The second NZ Level Two Academy game during 2019’s ANZAC series against Mornington Peninsula would have to be the other biggest highlight. It was tight game right from the first bounce with both teams trading goals for the full 80-minutes. With scores level heading into the final minute of play, it took something very special from Mornington to set up a mark inside 50 with a kick after the siren to win the game. The intensity of the game and the crowd atmosphere made this a fantastic game to umpire!
The introduction of the women’s round during the 2019 AFL New Zealand Premiership was also a very exciting and it was fantastic to be out in the middle as the two teams did battle on a very wet, cold and windy Auckland morning.
How has AFL New Zealand assisted you in the role?
The AFL New Zealand Premiership has been an invaluable resource in the development of not just myself but all umpires in New Zealand. To have an opportunity to consistently umpire the best AFL players throughout the country in physical and pressured games ensures that we get to experience and practice for higher honours – like the International ANZAC series.
Although young, the AFLNZ Umpires Pathway provides great assistance and resources to help entry level umpires get out and to the middle of the field. This includes bringing Senior AFL and VFL rostered umpires to NZ as part of the ANZAC series during 2019.
A special mention must also go out to all the players and coaches involved in CAFL and the AFLNZ Premiership. Thank you for the respect and patience that you show myself and other umpires as we strive to develop our knowledge and skills of the game to provide you with higher quality umpiring.
Thank you to everyone at AFL NZ for their commitment and dedication to the game and the opportunities they create for players, coaches and umpires alike.
What’s next/ what do you want to achieve in umpiring?
Personally, umpiring the NZ Senior Men’s ANZAC game against the AFL Academy is my biggest goal and something that I am working to achieve.
Outside of this, the continual development of a national AFL Umpires Pathway in partnership with AFLNZ and provinces is my other main focus. Whether it’s ex-players or new friends to AFL in NZ, opening up and promotion umpiring as an opportunity is vital in ensuring the games longevity and expansion in New Zealand.
National Volunteer Week celebrates the collective contribution of the 1.2 million volunteers who enrich Aotearoa New Zealand.
For more information, head to www.nationalvolunteerweek.nz