If Michelle Phippard gets nervous before a big game, she certainly isn’t admitting it.
“We try not to call it ‘nervous’,” she laughs.
“We call it ‘excited’. So I’m not nervous, I’m excited.”
And why the renowned and highly respected international umpire might have cause to be excited right now is that when she takes to the court on Wednesday to umpire the crucial game between New Zealand and England, it will mark her 100th international game.
It’s an incredible achievement for the veteran whistleblower, who umpired at her first Commonwealth Games in 2002, officiated her first National League game in 1998 and has how umpired at four Comm Games and three World Netball Championships.
So no, she probably doesn’t get nervous anymore.
But Phippard – a lawyer and mother of three – is still getting a little flutter as she steps out on court this week, knowing she’s again reached the absolute pinnacle of her sport.
“The profile of netball itself has risen (in recent years),” she says, “and I think at an event like the Comm Games it’s one of the sports where you can honestly say you have the best players in the world there.”
“It’s one of those things that you just sort of keep trying to back up each year and maintain the standard, and it’s always a privilege to be involved at this level.”
If Phippard’s 2018 Commonwealth Games are anything like her 2014 Commonwealth Games, she might need to make an addition or two to her list of career highlights.
Flashback four years and Phippard had the whistle in hand for that unforgettable Commonwealth Games semi-final between the Silver Ferns and England.
You know the one – when New Zealand stormed back from five goals down to snatch victory through a Maria Folau (then Tutaia) goal with only one second remaining.
The match is still crystal clear in her mind.
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“That really was an incredible match,” she says. “I mean it was an amazing game because it was very, very tight and the New Zealand team was under massive pressure and with some really significant injuries.”
“They were trying to hang in there and England had a sniff that they could knock them off, and then all of a sudden in the last minute and a half of the game it just flipped the other way.”
“It was in Glasgow so you had a very vocal England crowd and it was just an amazing atmosphere and an amazing game in terms of the skill level and the desperation of both teams.”
You’d think an umpire might have trouble topping the almost impossibly rare mix of skill, excitement and pressure that that single game produced, and yet just two years later Phippard was running the boards again for the ANZ Championship Grand Final between the NSW Swifts and Queensland Firebirds.
Who could forget it, when the scores were locked at 54-54 on the final whistle and remained tied after 14 minutes of extra time, before the Firebirds pulled two goals clear to win back-to-back championships with a 69-67 victory in front of 11,000 home fans.
Yeah, that one.
But is the pressure to make the right calls in those critical moments sometimes overwhelming?
Phippard says it comes with the territory.
“The intensity is just so much every week that as an umpire, just like the players, we have to bring our best.”
“You want to go out there and you want to do a good job. You want to do the best you can.”
Netball and umpiring have come a long way since Phippard’s early years officiating in our elite domestic competition, then known as the Commonwealth Bank Trophy.
“When I first started umpiring at the elite level domestically, it was just one of those things that we didn’t really get paid, we travelled on our own time and you would leave work and umpire a couple of hours later.”
But with the professionalisation of the sport in Australia and abroad has come an expectation that Phippard and her fellow umpires will evolve with the players, she says.
Phippard says the players and teams are now faster, stronger and arguably more tactically astute, which puts increased demands on umpires to stay on top of everything on court.
“It’s wonderful that the players now able to devote themselves full-time to what they do, so obviously we need to keep up with that.”
“We’re not full-time yet but we are making progress and that’s what we’d like to see, that we are able to devote ourselves full-time during seasons, because the athletes deserve our best.”
Now also involved in umpire development at both an elite and grassroots level – through her seven-year-old daughter’s club in Sydney – Phippard’s passion for helping other young umpires pursue their dreams is obvious.
And she calls on spectators and players to support their young, local umpires to ensure they’re not lost to the game and so that some can one day follow in her footsteps and pursue elite umpire status.
“I’m helping out with the umpires at my local club in Sydney, and one of the things we’re always talking about is that we get all these kids and they are all really keen and excited to get involved with umpiring, but then how do we keep them,” she says.
“I think, to be honest, that at grassroots level they have it a lot harder than we (elite umpires) do.”
“People don’t have the same tolerance level for errors from umpires as they do for errors from players.”
“It’s a little bit unfair, and I think we need to invest in our umpires and let them know that we value them, that they are important.”
INF President, the Hon. Molly Rhone OJ, CD, thanked Phippard for her incredible service to netball.
“We are thrilled that Michelle has reached 100 caps and to do so at the Commonwealth Games here in Gold Coast, Australia, is particularly special,” Rhone says.
“We are so grateful to Michelle’s dedicated service to international netball. She truly is a great role model for our sport and aspiring umpires all over the world and we congratulate her on her incredible achievement.”