THE ongoing COVID-19 crises has interrupted the sporting aspirations of countless individuals around the country, with many forced to hang up their boots for at least a month.
Unfortunately the timing could not have been any worse for Limestone Coast football field umpire Ben Thiel.
After claiming everything there is to achieve officiating the Western Border Football League before the age of 18, Thiel made the move from Mount Gambier to Adelaide with his family last summer.
The switch was an anticipated one for the rising talent, hoping to take the next step on his AFL umpiring dream, while also balancing university commitments.
The 2020 season was the time Thiel hoped to make an impact into the SANFL ranks and continue his development.
However, SANFL was forced to postpone its season until May 31 at the earliest in response to coronavirus.
Thiel said it was a tough pill to swallow after working towards the opportunity for a long time, but understands it is a sign of the times.
“I suppose it is a bit of a struggle if you are a first-year university student moving to the city and getting pretty serious about umpiring and suddenly three weeks in everything turned on its head,” he said.
“It is something that I am not just taking differently, but everyone is.”
The fact the closure of football was within touching distance of round one made it even harder for umpires like Thiel.
He was feeling confident after a long and intense pre-season, which saw umpires push their physical limits to prepare for the year ahead.
Over the past two months, SANFL umpiring hopefuls took part in countless running sessions ranging from 300m sprints to 10km endurance time trials.
After wiping the sweat off months of training, Thiel said he was in prime shape to tackle his first year in Adelaide, but now must find a way of maintaining the high standard back in Mount Gambier.
“I have worked really hard during a big couple of months in the off season to get fit and game ready, but now we are left with nothing to do,” he said.
“It possibly could ruin my rhythm and gradual development because it is hard to maintain that fitness when you are not around a group of people pushing their hardest.
“Now we have to do it all over again, so it is a big reset.”
The demanding training was just one aspect of how impressed Thiel was of the SANFL set up.
He said he has enjoyed the high attention to detail on all components of umpiring such as bouncing, positioning and the “insane” level of fitness, a far cry to what he has previously experienced.
“What really caught my eye is how professional it all is,” Thiel said.
“At the South East Football Umpires League, you were here to umpire and do it well, but I got to the point where I was not going anywhere.
“In SANFL their motto is if you are not in the right position, you are not going to make the right decision, so you need to have the fitness.
“At each training session, the coaches sit down with you and show various pieces of video footage to run you through things, while we also do a test where you have to get 80pc of bounces perfect.
“My first session was probably the hardest I have ever seen in my life.”
Despite witnessing many new eye-opening experiences, Thiel has been earmarked as a potential SANFL umpire for a long time.
His first encounter was at the metro country combined championships in 2016, where he impressed SANFL talent manager Garry Wyld enough to make annual trips to officiate various high-level matches.
These efforts saw the Mount Gambier product selected on the SANFL list in 2020 – a rare feat for newcomers – after controlling a pair of Under 16 major-round matches.
But the unexpected break now means the equation is back to square one, so Thiel said he is hungry to cement his place on the esteemed list when football returns.
“I was quite chuffed to be in the SANFL squad for seniors, reserves and Under 18’s,” he said.
“But nothing is set in stone now and when we come back as a group, it will only be the best guys who get to run around.
“So it has definitely made me more determined to have my name on that panel this season.”