In theory, netball has always been known as a non-contact sport.
But anybody that has played or watched the game will tell you that it is a lot more physical than that notion suggests.
As netball has grown with more commercial interest and investment, especially in the Super Netball era, professional full-time contracts mean players are now stronger, fitter and more dynamic.
The sport is also favouring a closer battle between defence and attack; encouraging umpires to use less whistle and let the game ebb and flow.
This has seen the physicality of the game increase too, as the intensity lifts another notch.
But with that, especially with the body-on-body type of defence that has been trademarked ‘the Australian way’, comes a greater chance of collision, injury and white line fever that can sometimes get a little out of hand.
This has made it trickier to get the balance right between a brilliant, willing contest and scrappy, negligent play.
Majority of the time, netballers get this right and everybody gets a taste of the tough, grinding contest fans have been crying out for, in a safe and controlled environment.
But in some cases, like Monday’s match between the West Coast Fever and Giants, it gets harder to contain the heat of the battle; as little shoves and deliberate contact from the hips and shoulders set a precedent for unnecessary and potentially dangerous types of collisions.
This has led to calls from the community for a match review panel. One that takes a second look at incidents, and in some cases inflicts harsher penalties on players, to ensure the game keeps its family-friendly reputation.
It is not the first time the idea has been floated. Back in 2019, the question was raised again, after former Collingwood shooter Nat Medhurst copped a particularly ugly elbow to the mouth and needed stitches.
But it is certainly not an idea that has ever gained real momentum with the league or the governing body of the sport.
How does netball’s officiating compare to other sports?
Netball is one of the only codes at the top of Australia’s elite sporting competitions that does not currently have some form of match review in place.
The NRL and AFL both have regular panels that meet after each round to go over games and notable incidents.
With greater funding, they also have the ability to employ more officials and to invest in technology for game day — with video referees and umpires able to assist the main officials on the ground with contentious decisions.
But netball’s approach to officiating probably leans closest to the NBL and A-League, where there is more of a focus on dealing out punishments on the day.
Football obviously has its card system, where a yellow card is given as a warning before a player is sent off with a red.
Basketball, depending on the length of the game, gives a player five or six chances to commit a foul before they are forced to retire to the bench. These fouls are tallied and publicly displayed on the scoreboard.
Although both of these sports still have independent match review panels, they meet less frequently and tend to only be assembled when a red card is given or a match official reports an incident higher up the chain.
Netball, without a post-match system in place, relies solely on the two umpires in the moment (and to a lesser extent the reserve umpire) to handle behaviour in a game.
If a player commits something that is deemed worse than your usual penalty, a caution may be given, followed by a warning if the same type of behaviour persists.
The issue can be escalated further to a two-minute suspension and then an official send-off if the player continues to repeat the infringement.
Just like every other sport listed above, netballers can also face immediate suspension for committing dangerous play or misconduct, if the umpire feels the action is justified.
But that is where the time of punishment ends. With a clean slate started at the beginning of each match and no further review or carryover penalties.
So, does the sport actually need a match review panel?
During her time as an All-Australian umpire and on the international stage at World Championships and Commonwealth Games, Stacey Campton officiated matches that featured many of the coaches and commentators involved in Super Netball now.
She is currently working as the league’s performance umpire coach, as part of a three-person panel alongside Sharon Kelly (allocations) and Debra Farrelly (selector).
Campton explained one of these three will always be in attendance on game day, ready to take notes and give feedback at half-time and at the end of the game.
But there is a very specific approach to the discussion that happens at the middle break, with certain things off limit until the match is done.
“At half-time we generally speak more about the techniques of umpiring, such as position, vision and timing,” she said.
“We may also speak about questions asked by a team or if there’s been inappropriate behaviour, like talking back or warnings given.
“But what we don’t do, is talk about particular infringements till the end of the game, because we don’t want to create any unconscious bias or disrupt the consistency of the umpire’s calls in the second half of play.”
Once the final whistle has gone, the reviewer can then conduct a bigger debrief, where they will discuss certain passages of play and infringements, providing each umpire with a written feedback sheet that helps them to prepare for the next game.
“If they want to talk to us more afterwards, we can generally have that chat,” Campton said.
“But it’s more about building confidence and making sure that they have enough feedback to readjust for the next game they’re on.
For these reasons, Campton believes a match review panel is not warranted in netball right now.
“If there’s something that hasn’t been penalised in a match, like dangerous play, we might time stamp their feedback sheet, so the umpire can go back and look at it,” she said.
“We always suggest that they watch the game back too, but the footage doesn’t provide the same experience.
“It doesn’t demonstrate the intensity of what the game is like live and the angles of the cameras don’t necessarily pick out the ones our umpires see… it’s also difficult to see things like offside with the decals on the court.”
When it comes to player penalties, Campton has confidence that the current system allows for enough control and punishment around misconduct.
She also wanted to remind people that the umpires and officials were already underfunded for the level of commitment they make to the game, on top of their full-time jobs.
“The accountability for a physical contest should be on the players and the way they behave, and the way our rules are set up is to discipline them there and then.”
“It comes down to the spirit of the game and although the physicality of the sport is expected now, every single player at that level knows the rules and how they should treat fellow players and the opposition.
“So it’s up to the umpires to manage that expectation and the intricacy of the rules in live play, and it is important that the legacy from one game is not carried on to the next.”