Breaking a Super Netball taboo: Let’s talk about the umpires


Last weekend’s Super Netball semi-finals saw the Collingwood Magpies bow out of the title race, the West Coast Fever make it through to the grand final, and the Melbourne Vixens and Giants set up a must-win preliminary final clash.

But the biggest talking point wasn’t the players’ skills, or the likelihood of each of the remaining three team’s chances of lifting the trophy. Instead, it was all about the largely unspoken part of the game — the umpires.

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In the Vixens and Fever’s major semi-final on Saturday at John Cain Arena, the crowd booed several decisions against the Vixens as the minor premiers went on to lose the match 71-62 while conceding 74 penalties to the Fevers’ 47.

Some fans questioned this discrepancy, suggesting one team had been whistled out of contention. Others argued the match had been painful to watch from an entertainment perspective, preferring a more free-flowing style of play.

Then there were the fans that stood up for the umpires, pointing out the Vixens’ responsibility to get off the body of their opposition and adjust to the calls.

These conversations are always difficult because the subject feels a bit taboo, seeing as netballers are taught from a young age to respect the umpire and that their decision is final. There’s also a widespread understanding that they’re the most undervalued and underpaid people in the sport.

But that sentiment hasn’t stopped the discourse around the standard of umpiring, and in some ways it shouldn’t, as healthy debate is vital for the growth of the game.

Rising penalty counts

The Vixens have been no stranger to high penalty counts this season, averaging 62 per match and featuring in the two most heavily penalised games – in Round 1 against the Queensland Firebirds (161) and Round 9 against the Giants (169).

Umpires have made huge sacrifices to keep the game going during the pandemic, all while being expected to adapt quickly to the new rules in the game.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

However, they aren’t the only ones that have spent a lot of time standing out of play, with statistics recorded by Champion Data showing an increase in the overall amount of whistle blown in the Super Netball league for the past two regular seasons.

Since 2020, the total penalty count has risen by 17.45 per cent, while the average number of penalties per game is up from 98 in 2020, to 119 in 2022.

There’s also been an interesting trend throughout the history of the league when it comes to teams reaching 80 or more penalties within a match. In the first couple of seasons it was a common occurrence, but was nipped in the bud from 2019 to 2021, before spiking again this year.

Times teams reached 80 penalties in a game

2017

11

2018

12

2019

4

2020

0

2021

2

2022

7

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There has been a rise in penalties across the entire Super Netball competition.(Getty: James Worsfold)

So is this a reflection of the standard of umpiring? A product of players trying to push the boundaries? Or a statement about the growing physicality of the game?

There is a new wave of umpires coming through the Super Netball ranks, as those in charge try to expose the next generation of officials to the top league. This could be a reason we’re seeing the overall penalty count climb, but that argument doesn’t stack up for the finals, as all four of the umpires used last weekend are internationally badged with a wealth of experience.

There’s also been a common thought that the rise could be the result of a directive given by the Diamonds in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, after national coach Stacey Marinkovich spoke with Netball Scoop in April and said this:

Super Netball umpire Kate Wright
Kate Wright is one of the most experienced umpires in the Super Netball league.(AAP: James Ross)

Yet the umpires say they’ve received no directive of this kind and that they’ve been following the same process they always have of simply umpiring what’s in front of them.

The umpires have also offered to attend team training sessions this season to try and help address the issue, but there has been little engagement on this front and the teams that have taken them up on the offer did so later in the season.

A clear disconnect

The focus on officiating continued right across the weekend, with Sunday’s Magpies and Giants minor semi-final at Ken Rosewall Arena drawing more unwanted attention.

There were more boos here from the Sydney crowd when a couple of 50-50 calls went against the Giants, but it was actually the Magpies who felt they’d been hard done by after their 55-48 loss.

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Although the penalty count finished on more of an even note, 63-58, Magpies coach Nicole Richardson said she felt like there had been an unfair shift in the interpretation of the rules.

“I made it quite clear at three-quarter time that regardless of the result, I was going to talk to the umpires at the end because I didn’t want to look like I was being a sooky coach based on the result,” Richardson told the media.

“Basically, what I was told was that the intensity lifted in the second half so the umpiring had to change, because I questioned the difference in umpiring.

“Some of the calls might have been pulled up to try and control that intensity, but I was super frustrated by that because what was allowed in the first wasn’t allowed in the second.”

Sophie Garbin Nicole Richardson Collingwood Magpies
Nicole Richardson was unhappy with some of the calls.(Getty: Jason McCawley)

The umpires remember that post-match conversation a little differently, acknowledging the intensity had lifted but so too had player error and the need for more intervention.

But it’s important to note that Magpies captain Geva Mentor and goal shooter Shimona Nelson had already approached the umpires at the end of the first quarter to get some clarification around the physicality in the shooting circle, so the fact the team felt the need to speak with the officials twice in one match shows there’s a bit of a disconnect.

This was reflected in a player survey conducted and published by NewsCorp earlier this month, where 60 per cent of those that participated rated the quality of officiating this season as average, below average, or poor.

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Players react to an umpire’s call.(AAP: Matt Turner)

It’s a result that recently retired Australian umpire Michelle Phippard finds concerning.

“That feedback shows there’s a disconnect between what the players think they can do and what is being put out there, and so that to me suggests there’s a need to resolve that frustration because ultimately the game is good when we work together and when we’re on the same page,” Phippard said.

“Clearly it’s complex, from the point of view that players aren’t always going to be happy with umpiring and we have to remember that an unpopular decision is not always a wrong decision.

“But I respect the players, they’re intelligent people and I don’t think they’d be that blunt to give an overall rating like that just because an umpire made a decision they didn’t like.”

So how do we navigate the conversation?

A meeting around the officiating will be held once the competition wraps up, but with so much international netball scheduled for the end of the year, it’s unclear whether it will happen right after this season or in the lead up to the next.

Phippard says it’s important these reviews happen so that the game can continue to grow in the right direction and that we shouldn’t be afraid to have these tough conversations, as long as they’re constructive and balanced.

Michelle Phippard
Michelle Phippard hung up her whistle at the start of this year after officiating 112 Tests, four Commonwealth Games and three World Cups.(Getty: Will Russell)

“On one hand we need to protect umpires from abuse … but I think we have to be careful we don’t create this situation where we say the umpires are sacrosanct and that we can’t say anything about them because they’re not treated very well,” Phippard said.

“While yes, that is true … umpiring is about making correct decisions and providing a level of consistency, and to do that you have to also identify where you made incorrect decisions so that people can learn how not to get it wrong the next time.

“The bigger question is what do we want the future of the game to look like, and what do we want it to be? What kinds of play do we want to encourage and what do we want to discourage? We need to learn to work together as players, coaches and umpires from a strategic point of view, so that we can improve the overall product of the game.”

The Vixens will host the Giants at John Cain Arena this Saturday night at 7:00pm AEST, as the two teams battle for a spot in the grand final.



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