The final game of Round 5 in the Suncorp Super Netball produced one of the most extraordinary matches that will be debated for a long time to come.
The result was a thrilling one-goal victory to the Sunshine Coast Lightning over the GWS Giants 58-57.
However, the final score will not be the main focus of discussion. That honour goes to an incident in the final quarter that arguably upset the flow of the game. With just under ten minutes left, the Giants had a comfortable seven-goal lead when their GD Kristiana Manu’a was sent off the court for rough play.
This was her second exit for the game, her first coming in the third quarter when she was given a two-minute penalty. A send-off in netball is rare, two is almost unheard of. Unfortunately for Manu’a and the Giants, this second indiscretion meant she could not return to the court nor could the Giants replace her.
Effectively, their final nine minutes were played with only six members on the court.
The Giants were visibly shaken. Predictably the Lightning reduced the margin as GWS goalkeeper Sam Poolman was double-teamed in her defensive goal circle. She was almost in tears. It was awkward to watch.
Farcical might be too harsh a definition but it does beg the question: how much authority should an umpire use during a game? The two decisions to send Manu’a to the bench were made by two different umpires so there was no bias, but it is entirely possible they got swept up in the moment.
Put simply, the punishment was excessive.
The umpires had already given Manu’a a verbal caution for rough play earlier in the match. They followed the correct procedure and were quite within their rights to send her off, but it wasn’t within the spirit of the game.
Neither of her ‘victims’ were injured. The first incident appeared rather innocuous.
Her opponent, Lightning goal shooter Cara Koenen, was knocked off balance, but didn’t go to ground and was quite surprised to see Manu’a leave the court. The second was equally as puzzling to anyone who saw it including an angry Giants coach, Julie Fitzgerald, who could be heard yelling “It isn’t her fault”.
Manu’a appeared to have eyes only for the ball.
Both captains were diplomatic in their post-match interviews. In a bittersweet moment, Giants captain Jo Harten received the player of the match award. When asked to assess what had taken place she admitted things had been “confusing”.
Lightning captain Laura Langman, though thankful for the win, was almost apologetic stating it wasn’t the way they wanted to end the game. Netball is a non-contact sport. Coaches enforce this into young kids who are learning the game.
Discouraging reckless behaviour creates good habits and boosts skill levels. It also helps to prevent easily bruised little bodies from crashing into each other like bumper cars.
But this is not junior netball. Suncorp Super Netball is considered to be the best netball tournament in the world with players from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean coming out to Australia each year to participate.
These are world-class athletes who are taking to the court, and with that comes a world-class competitive nature. When two or more players are competing for the ball, contacts happen.
They are neither malicious nor intentional. It is not uncommon to have 30-40 contacts per game. Many of them are called as ‘play on advantage’ so as not to interrupt the flow. The rest will result in a free pass to the player who was contacted, with her opponent out of play until she has thrown the next pass.
The system works. The fans want to see their players attacking the ball. They want to see passion and commitment.
When an umpire sends a player off the court they are exercising a power that should only be used in extreme cases, otherwise we face a real possibility that players will become too scared to contest the ball. This would be a disaster.
Netball is a tough game. For goodness sake, let the players play.