My partner and I left Melbourne early in the morning of the first Monday in July.
It felt a bit like a mystery flight because it was only a short time before we left that we actually knew where we were going.
We were off for what I thought was going to be a few weeks of umpiring AFL footy in one of the interstate hubs before matches would return to Melbourne.
Now 111 days, 25 coronavirus tests, six hotels and 1,000 kilometres of running later, I’m almost ready to head home.
But not before one last mission — today’s grand final.
It’s been an extraordinary journey of ups and downs as I played my small part in trying to keep this game loved by so many Australians going.
Charter flights, COVID tests and round and round ovals
My first task back in early July was trying to organise “working from home” from an interstate hotel at very short notice.
My daytime job is as a journalist in the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom and, fortunately enough, my boss was very accommodating.
One of the early bizarre experiences came as we boarded the charter flight from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport.
Instead of going through the main part of the airport, we waited with hundreds of other AFL players, umpires and staff at a private terminal before wandering straight across the tarmac and onto the plane.
In these COVID times, there’s no food on planes and people are spread out as much as possible.
We checked into our first hotel in Southport on Queensland’s Gold Coast with dozens of other umpires and their families.
With us all sharing the same floor in the hotel and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together, it was very quickly starting to feel like Year 8 camp with all your mates.
There was no leaving the grounds of the hotel under the strict 14-day quarantine rules.
As a boundary umpire, a high level of running fitness is key to the job.
But with limited space, it meant endless laps of the hotel oval.
My boundary colleague Michael Marantelli — who is also umpiring the grand final today — set the record with 21.1 continuous kilometres around the oval during one of his runs.
After one week in quarantine, my first match day had finally arrived.
I was preparing for a Saturday afternoon game at the Gold Coast stadium between Fremantle and St Kilda.
But just before leaving for the match, my spot was suddenly in doubt — the result of my COVID test hadn’t arrived and under no circumstances was any player or official involved in matches allowed to participate without recording a negative result in the lead-up.
Some good work by our hub manager meant he was able to get onto the lab and confirm the result was negative.
COVID tests had become one of the defining features of season 2020.
We were tested before every match and, if lucky enough, sometimes even a couple of times a week.
By my count, I’d racked up about 25 tests over the last few months — some less enjoyable than others.
The occasional one drew some blood, while my favourites were with one particular guy who was quick and would say “now just a short one up the nostril”.
Often there would be a little bit of jostling in the lines to try and position yourself to get one of the “friendly” testers.
A few weeks turns to a few months
After one week at Southport, logistical reasons meant it was time to move onto another hotel just down the road.
As with the previous hotel, we shared our accommodation with a couple of footy clubs and families and partners of players and officials.
With coronavirus cases in Melbourne continuing to soar, people gathered around TVs on Wednesday that week as AFL boss Gillon McLachlan announced there would be no more footy in Melbourne for the foreseeable future.
Suddenly, what I thought was going to be a few weeks away was looking more like a few months.
By the start of the next week, we’d arrived at our third hotel, this time in Broadbeach, where we would be pretty settled for the next few months.
Hub life meant limiting your interaction with the public, no sitting down in cafes, restaurants or the like, always social distancing and following strict rules on which umpire colleagues you could hang out with.
In fact, the AFL’s hub rule book ran 17 pages long. And for good reason.
A lot had gone into working with governments and other stakeholders to make sure the season could continue safely.
While being away from home for such a long time and following such tight rules wasn’t always easy, we were fully aware of the hard times so many other Australians were going through, particularly those in Melbourne.
But if we could help keep footy on TV and in the stadiums for the fans, we were happy.
Three matches in just over a week, and a snake encounter
The next three months of hub life, like 2020 in general, were full of twists and turns and unexpected moments.
Never before had I umpired three matches in just over a week but that’s what came with the “footy frenzy” periods of the season where games were played every day.
Training in this COVID world was a whole different story as well.
No more big group sessions on the track and meetings in theatrettes, but instead running by yourself and coaching over Zoom.
There was one running session I did along a gravel path in a bushy area near Surfers Paradise that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Moving along at just over 3-minute-kilometre pace, I was puffing hard and keeping a close eye on my watch.
Turns out I should have been keeping an even closer eye on the path, because I was centimetres away from stomping on a snake.
I noticed it at the very last second, as it did me. I jumped and it jumped.
Luckily we both escaped unscathed — other than a soaring heart rate that I struggled to bring back down.
A night grand final, outside Victoria
By mid-October, I’d umpired all 18 home and away rounds, with trips to Adelaide and Cairns in between, and three finals.
But the most nervous wait of all was still to come.
The last Sunday before grand final day is always an anxious day for umpires — we’re waiting to find out who has been selected for the biggest match of all.
As soon as I saw the coach’s name pop up on my phone late in the afternoon, my heart rate was again going through the roof.
And as soon as I answered I was immediately listening for hints in his voice of good or bad news to come.
Fortunately for me, it was good news this time.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a few epic grand finals before, including the 2010 draw.
But never has the finale been played outside of Victoria. And never before at night.
This one is going to be special. And I reckon it might just be another classic.