As a junior umpire, there are not many people you can look up to. There are not many people you can aspire to be like, if anything, you put on your white shirt on a Saturday afternoon and try your hardest not to get screamed at by a coach. So when a legend like Michelle Phippard comes along, you are reminded of exactly why you stand on that sideline.
In 2015, I was 17 and ready to give up on umpiring, after five years I had enough. Then I sat in the Silver Fans section at the Netball World Cup. I was there all day, every day and when New Zealand wasn’t playing, my focus was on the umpires, listening, watching and considering every call made from that first whistle.
At the time, there was a couple of notable umpires alongside Phippard; Jono Bredin, who the fans largely disliked; Sharon Kelly, who was world number 1 at the time; and “that bald English umpire” who I now know as Gary Burgess.
Phippard stood out, though. She would walk into the middle of the court each game smiling with the ball deliverer before putting on this complete game face and blowing the first whistle. Her calls were so clear you could hear them from the second level, and I think one of the reasons why she stood out to me was because she was possibly the only umpire, me and my sister could ever agree on.
I remember during the Australia vs New Zealand final saying to my sister, “God, I WISH Phippard was umpiring this match,” my head was in my hands as I watched New Zealand and Australia start to get scrappy. I had a list of reasons why we lost that game, and one of them was because Michelle Phippard wasn’t umpiring.
(Side Note: Yes, me and my sister at 14 and 17 were umpire assessors and we knew who should umpire what games at the Netball World Cup.)
6 years later, and I still wish Michelle Phippard could umpire every game. She has set the standard for so long that her retirement will leave a massive hole of talent in the game.
When I was asked what Michelle Phippard meant to me? I didn’t have a complete answer.
She is someone that has been the face of umpiring in Australia for the last 20 years and someone that I aspire to be like. Her commitment to the sport has continued to drive my interest in netball and, more specifically, umpiring. She has been a key part of breaking the stereotype that netball is a “non-contact, ladylike sport”, which has allowed our sport to grow and evolve into what we love today.
With her umpiring, Phippard brought clear direction, a perfectly made-up high bun and personality to the sideline. Her ability to laugh and smile, even joke, when umpiring was something I thought was near impossible. I was taught you had to be serious at all times. Yet somehow Phippard managed to change the game simply by smiling and shaking her head no while running back to the centre pass and having a laugh with her umpiring partner when they fell over.
Every netballer knows who Phippard is, mainly because she has always had control of the game and commanded the attention of the players. There is not one game in the 21st century that Phippard umpired, and it didn’t look like she had control.
One of my favourite reasons why the general public know who Michelle Phippard is is because of that time she broke the rules and called Jess Anstiss by her name to set a penalty. ( A rule I think should be allowed to be broken at SSN level.) It was one of those times where her personable character came out on court, and it just showed how much class she really had.
Even outside of netball Michelle Phippard is a dedicated individual who has made me love her even more. Since her recent enrollment in Twitter, she has shared inside jokes, picked on “fan favourite” Gary Burgess and used her game knowledge to clarify rules in such depth for fans and budding umpires like myself.
She is not just a respected umpire but a loved umpire, and that just shows how much she has given to the game. I know Michelle Phippard probably isn’t walking away from the sport completely, but I hope we see more umpires like her in the future. She has created this pathway for umpires to bring their personality and love to the game alongside their skill, and now we need to use it.