​SA may not have players on Rio hockey fields but can be proud of one man: the umpire

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.

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. 

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


‘My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in...

South African Wuhan evacuee speaks about his nine-week ordeal

Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might

Why South Africa should consider amnesty for undocumented migrants in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories