Breaking a Super Netball Taboo: Let’s Talk About the Referees

Last weekend’s Super Netball semi-finals saw the Collingwood Magpies eject from the title race, the West Coast Fever advanced to the grand final and the Melbourne Vixens and Giants set a pre-final to be won.

But the main topic of discussion wasn’t the skills of the players, or the likelihood of each of the remaining three teams’ chances of winning the trophy. Instead, it was all about the largely unspoken part of the game – the umpires.

Loading

Loading

In Saturday’s big semi-final of the Vixens and Fever at the John Cain Arena, the crowd cheered several decisions against the Vixens, as the minor prime ministers lost the game 71-62 while conceding 74 penalties to the Fevers’ 47.

Some fans questioned this discrepancy and suggested that a team had been called out of the fray. Others argued that the match was painful to watch from an entertainment perspective, preferring a more free-flowing style of play.

Then there were the fans who stood up to the umpires and pointed out the Vixens’ responsibility to step out of their opponents’ bodies and adapt to the calls.

These conversations are always difficult as the subject feels a bit taboo as netball players are taught from an early age to respect the referee and that their decision is final. There is also a widespread understanding that they are the most undervalued and underpaid people in the sport.

But that sentiment hasn’t stopped the discourse surrounding the standard of umpires, and in some ways it shouldn’t, as healthy debate is vital to the game’s growth.

Increasing penalty counts

The Vixens are no stranger to high penalties this season, averaging 62 per game and in the two most heavily penalized games: Round 1 against the Queensland Firebirds (161) and Round 9 against the Giants (169).

A Super Netball umpire points to the spot where a penalty kick is to be taken.
Referees have made huge sacrifices to keep the game going during the pandemic, when they were expected to adapt quickly to the new rules of the game.AAP: Scott Barbour

However, they are not the only ones who have spent a lot of time outside the game, with stats recorded by Champion Data showing there has been an increase in the total number of whistles in the Super Netball league over the past two regular seasons.

Since 2020, the total number of penalties has increased by 17.45 percent, while the average number of penalties per game has risen from 98 in 2020 to 119 in 2022.

There is also an interesting trend in league history when it comes to teams hitting 80 or more penalties within a match. It was a common occurrence in the first few seasons, but from 2019 to 2021 it was nipped in the bud, before peaking again this year.

Times teams reached 80 penalties in a match

2017

11

2018

12

2019

4

2020

0

2021

2

2022

7

GettyImages-1164525444
There has been an increase in penalties throughout the Super Netball competition.Getty: James Worsfold

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

A new wave of umpires is coming through the Super Netball ranks as those in charge try to show the next generation of umpires to the highest class. This could be one reason why we are seeing the total number of penalties rise, but that argument won’t hold up for the finals as all four umpires deployed last weekend have a wealth of experience internationally.

There is also widespread belief that the increase could be the result of a directive from the Diamonds in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, after head coach Stacey Marinkovich spoke to Netball Scoop in April and said this:

Super Netball Referee Kate Wright
Kate Wright is one of the most experienced umpires in the Super Netball competition.AAP: James Ross

Yet the umpires say they have not received such a directive and have followed the same process they have always had, which is simply to arbitrate what is in front of them.

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

A clear disconnect

The focus on off-duty continued throughout the weekend, with Sunday’s small semi-final of the Magpies and Giants at the Ken Rosewall Arena drawing more unwanted attention.

There were more booing from the Sydney crowd here as some 50-50 calls went up against the Giants, but it was actually the Magpies who felt they’d had a rough time after their 55-48 loss.

Loading

Loading

Loading

Loading

Although the number of penalties ended more evenly, 63-58, Magpies coach Nicole Richardson said she felt there had been an unfair shift in the interpretation of the rules.

“I made it pretty clear in three quarters that regardless of the result, I would talk to the umpires at the end because I didn’t want to sound like a dismal coach based on the result,” Richardson said. told the media.

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

“Some of the calls may have been withdrawn to try and control that intensity, but I was super frustrated because of that because what was allowed in the first was not allowed in the second.”

Sophie Garbin Nicole Richardson Collingwood Magpies
Nicole Richardson was not happy with some of the phone calls.Getty: Jason McCawley

Magpies captain Geva Mentor and goalscorer Shimona Nelson had already approached the umpires at the end of the first quarter to get some clarification on the physical condition in the firing circle, thus the fact that the team felt the need to knock the umpires twice in one match to speak shows that there is a bit of a connection.

This was reflected in a players survey conducted and published by NewsCorp earlier this month, in which 60 percent of participants rated the quality of service this season as average, below average or poor.

20220403001643054608-original
Players respond to a referee’s call.AAP: Matt Turner

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

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

“Obviously it’s complex, given that players won’t always be happy with umpires and we have to remember that an unpopular decision isn’t always a wrong decision.

“But I respect the players, they are intelligent people and I don’t think they would be so rude to give such an overall rating just because a referee made a decision they don’t like.”

So how do we navigate the conversation?

A meeting will be held around the on-duty leadership once the competition has concluded, but with so much international netball scheduled for the end of the year, it’s unclear whether this will happen right after this season or in the run-up to the next.

Phippard says it’s important that 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 difficult conversations, as long as they’re constructive and balanced.

Michelle Philippe
Michelle Phippard hung up her whistle early this year after leading 112 Tests, four Commonwealth Games and three World Cups.Getty: Will Russell

“On the one hand, we have to protect referees from abuse… but I think we have to be careful not to create this situation where we say the referees are sacred and we can’t say anything about them because they’re not being treated. good,” said Phillip.

“While yes, that’s true… refereeing is about making right decisions and providing a level of consistency, and to do that you also need to identify where you’ve made wrong decisions so people can learn how to can’t do it wrong 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 kind of play do we want to encourage and what do we discourage? We need to learn to work together as players, coaches and umpires from a strategic perspective. point of view so that we can improve the overall product of the game.”

The Vixens will host the Giants at the John Cain Arena this Saturday night at 7:00 PM AEST as the two teams compete for a spot in the Grand Finals.

Posted updated