Breaking a Super Netball Taboo: Let’s Talk Referees

Last weekend’s Super Netball semi-finals saw the Collingwood Magpies drop out of title contention, West Coast Fever advance to the grand final and Melbourne Vixens and Giants staged a must-see preliminary final clash.

But the biggest talking point wasn’t the skill of the players, nor the likelihood of each of the remaining three teams winning the trophy. Instead, it was about the largely unspoken part of the game – the referees.

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

Some fans questioned this discrepancy, suggesting that one team was eliminated. Others argued that the match was painful to watch from an entertainment perspective, preferring a more fluid style of play.

Then there were the fans who defended the referees, pointing out the Vixens’ responsibility to get out of their opponent’s body and adapt to the calls.

These conversations are always difficult because the subject seems a bit taboo, since netballers learn from an early age to respect the referee and their decision is final. There is also a widespread understanding that they are the most undervalued and underpaid people in sport.

But that sentiment hasn’t stopped the talk around the officiating standard, and in some ways it shouldn’t, because healthy debate is vital to the growth of the game.

Penalty increase counts

The Vixens have been no strangers to high penalties this season, averaging 62 per game and featuring in the two most heavily penalized games – in the first leg against the Queensland Firebirds (161) and the ninth round against the Giants (169).

A Super Netball referee points to where a penalty should be taken.
Referees have made huge sacrifices to keep the game going during the pandemic, while being expected to adapt quickly to the new rules of the game.(PA: Scott Barbour)

However, they are not the only ones to have spent a lot of time offside, with stats recorded by Champion Data showing an increase in total Super Netball league whistles over the past two regular seasons.

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

There has also been an interesting trend throughout league history with teams hitting 80 or more penalties in a game. In the first two seasons, it was a common occurrence, but it was nipped in the bud from 2019 to 2021, before rising again this year.

Times teams have reached 80 penalties in a game

2017

11

2018

12

2019

4

2020

0

2021

2

2022

seven

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There has been an increase in penalties throughout the Super Netball competition.(Getty: James Worsfold)

So is this a reflection of the officiating standard? A product of gamers trying to push the limits? Or a statement about the increasing physicality of the game?

There’s a new wave of referees coming through the ranks of Super Netball, as officials try to expose the next generation of officials to the top league. This could be a reason why we see the total number of penalties climbing, but this argument does not apply to the final, as the four referees used last weekend are internationally badged with a wealth of experience.

It is also believed 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 to Netball Scoop in April and said:

Super Netball referee Kate Wright
Kate Wright is one of the most experienced referees in the Super Netball league.(PA: James Ross)

Yet the umpires say they were given no such direction and went through the same process they always have, of just officiating what’s in front of them.

The referees have also offered to attend team training sessions this season to try and help solve the problem, but there has been little engagement on this front and the teams that have accepted them have done later in the season.

A clear disconnect

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

There were more boos here from the Sydney crowd when a couple of 50-50 calls were made against the Giants, but it was actually the Magpies who felt they were given a rough ride after their 55-50 loss. 48.

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Although the penalty tally ended on a more even note, 63-58, Magpies coach Nicole Richardson said she felt there had been an unfair change in interpretation rules.

“I made it very clear three quarters of the time that whatever the outcome I was going to talk to the referees at the end because I didn’t want to look like a lousy coach based on the outcome,” Richardson tells the media.

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

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

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

The referees remember that post-match conversation a little differently, acknowledging that the intensity had increased, but also the player’s error and the need for greater intervention.

But it is important to note that Magpies captain Geva Mentor and goalkeeper Shimona Nelson had already approached the referees at the end of the first quarter for clarification on the physics in the shooting circle, so the fact that the team felt the need to speak with the officials twice in a match shows that there is a bit of a disconnect.

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

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Players react to a referee’s call.(PA: Matt Turner)

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

“These feedbacks show that there is a disconnect between what the players think they can do and what is on offer, and so that suggests to me that there is a need to resolve that frustration because at the end of the day, the game is good when we work together and when we’re on the same page,” Phippard said.

“Obviously it’s complex, from the point of view that the players will not always be happy with the refereeing and we have to remember that an unpopular decision is not always a bad decision.

“But I respect the players, they are smart people and I don’t think they would be so blunt to give an overall rating like that just because a referee made a decision they didn’t like. “

So how do we navigate the conversation?

A meeting around refereeing will take place once the competition is over, but with so much international netball scheduled for the end of the year, it’s unclear whether that will happen right after this season or before the next.

Phippard says it’s important that these overhauls happen so the game can continue to develop 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 refereeing 112 Tests, four Commonwealth Games and three World Cups.(Getty: Will Russell)

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

“While yes, it’s true…officiating is about making the right decisions and providing a level of consistency, and to do that you also need to identify where you’ve made incorrect decisions so people can learn how to don’t be wrong next time.

“The bigger question is what do we want the future of gaming 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 have to learn to working together as players, coaches and referees from a strategic perspective, 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 7:00 p.m. AEST, as the two teams battle for a spot in the Grand Finals.

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