Wangaratta Rovers enlisted the aid of an international Sports Scientist during the 2015 season.
But before you conclude that I am about to lift the lid on another sporting scandal, I’d best explain.
No, the Hawks didn’t follow the perilous path trod by Essendon and opt for a Stephen Dank, a Dean Robinson or a Shane Charter to remedy their ills. Let me introduce you, instead, to Ben Simpson……
Ben is a former local boy who has traversed the globe pursuing his vocation, but has interspersed this with a zest for adventure, sport and, in particular, football.
He spent the past eight years in the Middle East, based in Qatar and had played Aussie Rules with the Doha Kangaroos since their formation in 2007. In March, 2014, they clinched their first AFL Middle East title and the lad from Wangaratta was given the nod as Best Afield.
That was a career highlight, but then, how do you compare it with competing in triathlons, surfing, running an ultra-marathon across La Reunion (a French island near Madagascar), skiing on the slopes of Sweden, Iran and Norway, and rubbing shoulders with the greats of soccer, which he has done.
Or being part of the Qatar team which became the Gaelic champions at the Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.
Ben’s grandfather, Bert, was a long-time trainer with Wangaratta. His parents, Pete and Dianna are Magpie-oriented, so they were rapt when he showed a bit of talent as a high-leaping ruckman.
He graduated from the Thirds to play more than 50 senior games with Wang. For over half of these he would travel back from Ballarat, where he was studying Sports Science at Uni.
Having graduated, he shifted to Melbourne and did an Internship with the V.I.S and Sports Medicine Australia.
He was at a Sports Expo in Melbourne which was, coincidentally, attended by some officials from Qatar. In short, they offered him a job, which he gleefully accepted.
The first thing that came into Pete’s head was the risk of terrorism in that area. “No worries”, said Ben. “There’s a big U.S Naval base there”. “Well, that’s all the more reason to worry. It’s the first thing they’d be likely to attack”, was Pete’s reply.
But Ben already had his bags packed and was raring to go. He took on a role in the Talent Identification unit of Qatar’s Sports Science department, Aspire Sports Academy
This led to him working as a Physiologist for the Under 16 Qatar national soccer team. Specifically, he had to provide support to the players and coaches and help prepare the team for international competition.
He has travelled to 67 countries (mainly through work ) and his job has enabled him to liase with some of the finest Sports Scientists in the world.
Ben loved his time in Qatar. “It’s a really relaxed way of life. The term they always use is ‘Shway Shway’, which translates to ‘Take it easy’. I met some of my best friends in the time I was there. Not just Australians, but a mix of nationalities. And besides, it enabled me to meet my Swedish sweetheart, Hanna.”
AFL Middle East comprised six clubs – Dubai Dragons, Abu Dhabi Falcons, Dubai Dingoes, Muscat Magpies, Dubai Heat and Doha Kangaroos. BM Bulls took the place of Dubai Heat this season.
“There is a great Aussie Rules passion throughout the Doha community and it includes people from New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, the U.K and South Africa. It’s a proverbial United Nations,” Ben says.
“When we won the flag last year, we were boosted by the addition of some key position players with plenty of Aussie Rules experience. A major reason for the success we had over the past few seasons was the way the players bonded.”
“It makes it a lot easier when you’re training and playing with good mates”.
The 2013/14 Grand Final was his third in the Middle East. Everything came together for the Roos in their clash with the Dubai Dragons. They kicked 13.5 (83) to 8.9 (57), to cruise home. It was the first time that the premiership cup had left the United Arab Emirates and was the first of Ben’s career.
“We weren’t always the best-prepared team, but managed to click when it counted. We were on from the first bounce”.
Last October, Ben headed off on an 8,000km motor bike trip from Qatar to Italy. Part of it was with a good mate, Jeremy Aiken. Calling it ‘Ben’s Badass Bike Trip’, he travelled through Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Republic, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Albania, Greece and Montenagro, before arriving at his destination, Rome.
Ignoring the well-meaning advice from people who warned that the journey would be hazardous and that the citizens of some of those countries could be decidedly unfriendly, he found the opposite.
He and Jeremy created a video to illustrate the different cultures that they encountered along the way. It was also an attempt to alter the perception that people have of the countries.
It was a memorable expedition.
He arrived back in Qatar in time for the first round of the 2014/15 season, but was already planning the next chapter in his life.
A couple of months ago he received news that he had landed a job with a leading European soccer club and would be working under a friend and former colleague.
It’s an outstanding opportunity for Ben and while he was back home visiting his family and arranging his visa – he played a few games of footy.
Sean O’Keeffe has been a great mate of his since school days. They played together for a season when ‘Okey’ was at Sandringham and were keen to link up again for a kick, even if it was with the Rovers.
He admits it did feel a bit awkward pulling on the Brown and Gold guernsey. Particularly when he saddled up against the Magpies in the ‘local Derby’.
“The Magpies are in my blood and I’ve got a few mates there. It was strange, to say the least “, he recalled.
He enjoyed his few games in defence with the Reserves and would have liked to play more. But there was a fair bit involved in getting his visa organised and preparing for his involvement amidst the cut-throat environment of top-level European soccer.
Ben flew out today and is excited about what the future may hold, as he continues to expand on his already imposing sporting CV.