The historic opening round of the inaugural AFL Women’s competition over the weekend saw the emergence of two of the SFNL’s finest former umpires on the big stage.
Rising star Annie Mirabile flew the SFNL flag during Friday night’s ground-breaking blockbuster between traditional rivals Carlton and Collingwood at a packed Ikon Park, while the following night Libby Toovey officiated in the Western Bulldogs versus Fremantle match at the Whitten Oval.
Mirabile even had the honour of tossing the ball in the air to commence the first ever AFLW match in front of more than 24,500 fans, a capacity crowd that vastly exceeded all attendance expectations. And despite her previous big-game experience, she admitted to a few pre-match nerves as the hordes of spectators poured into the iconic venue.
“I suppose we got a feel for how big it was when we went out for our warm up at about 6:00pm, so about two hours before the game and people were already streaming in. And we were like, ‘Wow, this is going to be huge!’,” Mirabile said.
“I was feeling ok up until half an hour before the game and then I started to get pretty nervous. I tried to run off some of my nervous energy during the warm up.
“I wasn’t as nervous five minutes before the game. I guess during the national anthem I was just excited to get it going and just really excited for what was going to unfold.”
Despite the packed stands and massive live TV audience, Mirabile always appeared cool under pressure, which she attributed to her previous experiences in SFNL Division 1 Senior Grand Finals. However, the magnitude of Friday night was far beyond anything she had ever previously experienced.
Nevertheless, Mirabile enjoyed every minute of it, as said she was thrilled to have been involved in the history-making event.
“The atmosphere was incredible, like nothing I have ever been a part of,” Mirabile enthused.
“It was a great night, such an amazing experience and I was so happy to be a part of it.
“It was such an honour to be selected for that game, and I guess it’s a bit hard to put into words but just to be a part of history is something I will always be able to hang my hat on, no matter what happens with my career from here on.”
Both Mirabile and Toovey have progressed right through the SFNL’s umpiring pathway, and after starring with the whistle in the Southern league for several years, they are quickly establishing themselves at TAC Cup, VFL and now AFLW level.
And Mirabile is in no doubt that her SFNL apprenticeship has helped her get to where she is now.
“Obviously, all the coaches and people involved in my development at Southern have also played a huge part in sort of getting the fundamentals of my game down pat,” Mirabile explained.
“In my second year at Southern I had the opportunity to be a part of the Mates Program, which is where you get mentored by an AFL umpire. I had Steve McBurney for that, which was a great experience.
“And through my time at Southern I have been involved in the Female Umpiring Academy… I’ve had the opportunity to do the representative games like the Metro Championships, and through that I got picked to got to Brisbane in 2015 (for the Vic Metro V Queensland rep game).
“I have gotten so many opportunities through Southern and I don’t think I would be where I am now if I’d maybe been somewhere else.”
The SFNL has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for VFL umpires in recent years, and its Umpire Pathway Program has helped many young whistle-blowers progress their careers to higher levels.
The League’s Director of Umpiring, Peter Marshall, has helped strengthen an alignment between the SFNL and the VFL through his secondary role as a VFL Umpire Match-day Coach. Marshall’s predecessor, Peter Mair, also implemented a number of development programs for the SFNL umpiring group before he moved on to AFL Victoria as Umpiring Operations Manager in early 2016.
Marshall said the league’s links to the VFL presents a “huge opportunity for young people, both boys and girls”, to further their umpiring careers.
“Umpiring is a genuine career and the SFNL is a viable pathway to the big time with our relationships and connections to the VFL and AFL alike,” Marshall said.
“Just in the last three seasons alone, we’ve had more than a dozen former SFNL umpires making the grade at the VFL, and hopefully within the next three seasons, one will reach AFL standard.
“We’ve also got four umpires trialling in the VFL this year, two fieldies, a boundary and a goal (umpire).
“(It just goes to show that) the SFNL is a realistic avenue to get into VFL and AFL as an umpire, and our competition is improving so much that we’re now attracting young people to come and umpire with us.”
[caption id="attachment_14039" align="aligncenter" width="800"]
Former SFNL umpire Annie Mirabile officiated the very first AFLW match in front of a full house at Ikon Park on Friday night. PICTURE: Michael Wilson, AFL Media[/caption]