Neither of South Africa’s hockey teams will be going to Rio, but there is every chance that South Africa will have a presence in the Olympic final on August 18. Umpire John Wright is headed to the Games for an incredible fifth time.
It’s a career that began when he was 14, back in the 1980s. It is difficult – no, impossible – to imagine a teenage football referee sending an adult player off the field, but it happened in hockey. Wright got his first chance to “blow” an adult league match in King William’s Town when he was in grade nine. An umpire had failed to turn up. “Let him try,” he recalls someone saying.
From there he quickly moved through the ranks and umpired his first international in 1995, Netherlands versus Argentina in Durban.
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Now, with 202 internationals under his belt, one Olympic final and no fewer than three World Cup finals, Wright is among the elite of field hockey umpires in the world. When Australia scored their third goal in the 2104 World Cup final against the Netherlands a television commentator praised “a brilliant piece of umpiring, great advantage”.
Henk Ehlers, the umpire manager in the 2014 World Cup, says: “John is possibly one of the best umpires in the world in absorbing pressure and he has a huge amount of respect from the players.”
Ehlers’ overall assessment of the performance of Wright and his umpiring partner in that final, Nathan Stagno of Gibraltar, was “wonderful” as they balanced management with the “flow that a game of this nature deserves”.
The early stages of Wright’s umpiring journey overlapped with a good playing career at various levels for Border, South African National Defence Force and Western Province (indoor and outdoor). In his first year out of school, he was one of the umpires in the national schoolboy tournament, Dick Stead Week.
Although he had five years of international experience when he first received an Olympic invitation, Wright still found the 2000 Sydney Olympics “a real eye-opener” because of the intensity and high standard of play.
He has noticed some changes in the game in recent years. “Players are pushing for every single decision. They are going to eat you if you show a slight crack in your armoury. There is a lot more talking than there used to be, but the game is too quick for them to get into a long conversation. If they do, they find that the ball is on the other side of the field.”
The game has been speeded up to a remarkable degree. There is no longer off-sides in hockey, free hits can be taken immediately and rolling substitutions ensure fresh legs throughout the game.
Says Wright: “The changes have been well thought out and done much to make the game really quick, sometimes too quick when you consider the TV market.
“It definitely has not got easier to umpire, and hockey is one of the most difficult games to umpire because of the speed of the ball. We have most definitely had to become fitter, mentally and physically.”
As a sport manager at the Tshwane University of Technology, Wright is in a good position to compare sports. He is also the elected president of the Northerns Cricket Union and the tournament secretary (cricket and hockey) for University Sports South Africa.
So, for the next few weeks South Africans will have one countryman to watch when the world’s best hockey players take to the field.