English umpire Julian Appleby has revealed that he was summoned to the Argentine Open finals and the high goal season through a request of a powerful player lobby in Argentina, and believes that global umpiring is going through a step-change for the better.
Appleby spoke exclusively to Telegraph Sport following one of the greatest finals of all time, which saw La Dolfina complete a record-breaking Triple Triple, executed over nine major events in three consecutive years.
“It was my first season in Argentina and the atmosphere was amazing. I feel so lucky it have umpired an amazing occasion at Palermo in the final of the Argentine Open on such an historic day, and also to have been there officiating in the final of the incredible Hurlingham Open, in the match in which La Dolfina came back spectacularly,” Appleby said.
Changes have been afoot the last two years, on the officiating front. Last year, by invitation of the Argentine Association of Polo (AAP), Englishman Peter Wright became the first non-Argentine umpire to be invited to officiate in the Triple Crown.
Wright was then selected to oversee the final of the Argentine Open in Palermo. This year, fellow English umpire Appleby, a good friend of Wright, joined the fold.
Appleby, an Englishman but based now in New Zealand – he is married to a lady of the Silver Fern – has worked in Australia, England, France and the USA, and is highly respected as an official. This year the man in the middle was in charge of both the Hurlingham and Argentine Open finals, in Palermo.
“I was on such a high after the Hurlingham Open final, I was not expecting to be asked to umpire the Argentine Open,” revealed Appleby. “But it was great that the two teams came out and played great polo, andI felt honoured to be a part of it.”
“Peter Wright set the bar very high last year, and was rightly praised for his umpiring of the Open final, but it is something the foreign associations have been wanting to do for some time. It caused an obvious rift with some of the Argentine umpires, but it is the way that associations around the world want to move forward,” added Appleby.
“Some umpires have worked at the top level for years, and Pete and I fall into that category.”
Like cricket, neutral umpires could become the norm for the biggest matches. “It’s similar to that in the way that the best umpires travel. The players have a lot of power in Argentina – they requested us to be there as part of the set-up for the high goal. And that is the way it is going to happen.”
“The USA want to do that, too, and the high goal over there is getting lower and lower in handicap every year – in a sense as it is in in some ways in England. As umpires, we are certainly going to be kept busy.”
Argentine players requested English umpires Julian Appleby and Pete Wright for the High Goal at Palermo and Tortugas
For the record, Appleby has been an umpire for 14 years, has overseen nine Queen’s Cup finals, a similar number of Gold Cup finals days, four Coronation Cups, the Westchester Cup, and so on. Thirty years, in all, playing the sport, and largely based out of Cirencester as his home club.
He started playing polo at Millfield, then through the Pony Club, and after leaving the sport for a couple of years, got himself a scholarship to New Zealand. He never looked back, playing at weekends and being paid for it.
At the same time, he was working hard in the family firm, an electro-plating business in Rotherham, but he adopted to leave the firm eventually to go full-time in the sport.
“People started to offer me money to play, and it caused a bit of a rift between myself and my father, but I played for nearly thirty years, until 2009.”
As a player, Appleby reached medium goal, yet as an umpire since 2001, he is respected as one of the greatest in the world, and one of an elite group who is in demand on five continents. Consistency, calmness and fairness are his attributes, and it is there, clearly in his voice and his demeanour.
“Although home has been New Zealand for nearly 20 years – I have sone 16, and 14 and they both play – I’m still English, and always will be,” explained Appleby. “Last year I missed the High Goal season in England and stayed in the USA for four months, where I had a contract.”
It can be tough in the USA, too. They have different rules, of course, more open to interpretation. The matches are observed by cameras and drones, and in the USA, the umpires are expected to make the right call between 96 and 98 per cent of the time.
Appleby says that it can be “challenging”.
“I believe that we do make the right call most of the time. Next season in Palm Beach will be interesting; the USPA plans to adopt rules similar to those the AAP and HPA enforce,” he explained.
However, Appleby may be returning to England in the summer of 2016. “I’m in negotiations with the HPA to do the High Goal in May, June and July next year,” he revealed.
Appleby returns to recall the atmosphere at Palermo for the finals this season. “I’ve umpired the Coronation Cup when we used to have 35,000 spectators at Guard’s Polo Club, but Palermo with 35-40,000 fans is totally different,” explained Appleby.
“There are thousands of people who play to a high level, so many back seat experts, and it’s like being in a cauldron. I’d say it’s a little bit like being at a soccer stadium in England with huge, banked stands and terraces. It is so steep, so close, ajazing. We had flares and fireworks, whistles and jeering,” he explained.
“You wouldn’t often put that picture together with polo, and its spectators, but they are very passionate about their polo in Argentina.”