Sport

Super Netball caught napping with slow and opaque response to cancelled match

The strained refrain “but they started it” has been heard by every exasperated parent while trying to deal with squabbling siblings in the wake of a fight. The temptation to just let them battle it out can be strong, but good parents know when a conflict arises, cool-headed reason and swift decision-making are the only productive tactics to employ.

It is a pity then, that when the biggest controversy to hit Super Netball in its five-year history began bubbling to the surface last week, the league’s administrators seemingly let the bickering happen, failed to broker a compromise – and then let frustrations from an unprecedented impasse explode into the public arena.

Given ever-changing Covid rules across the country, it was mid-week when murmurs first surfaced about the viability of the West Coast Fever v Melbourne Vixens match that was scheduled for Sunday in Perth.

An investigation will look at exactly what happened between the Vixens – in Queensland after leaving Melbourne in late May – and the Fever, who were desperate for a home game. But the result was a two-paragraph press release from Netball Australia just after 3pm on Friday.

It advised the match, due to be broadcast on free-to-air, had been “cancelled due to the rapidly-evolving Covid-19 situation and its impact on interstate travel”. The brief, unattributed statement said next steps would be discussed, without providing a clear timeframe.

Crucially, the statement also did not explain why the game was cancelled, if options to avoid that were explored, if one side had forfeited or if the league would seek to reschedule it or allocate competition points in some way. In what felt depressingly in step with an engrained culture of opaqueness, the lack of detail from the league left a gargantuan information vacuum.

Within minutes and contrary to the collegial relationship most franchises have with each other, the Vixens and Fever issued their own statements, which shed some – albeit contradictory – light on what had happened.

The Fever said the Vixens had “refused to travel” and that the cancellation was “not in the best interests of the competition”. It was a bold choice of words given the Fever were fined $300,000 and stripped of 12 competition points this season for going nearly 20% over the salary cap in 2018 and 25% in 2019.

The reigning premiers, on the other hand, said their team “did not receive exemption to enter Western Australia”. That line too had its problems. It emerged that three senior Vixens – Jo Weston, Kate Moloney and Emily Mannix – had travelled to Byron Bay during the side’s bye last weekend. At the time, that was allowed and something their club was aware of, but it made them ineligible to enter Western Australia because of retrospective rules.

That left the Vixens with just eight players for the clash. Permission to add Victorian-based top-ups was denied by the WA government. The Vixens had the option of using players from other states deemed safe by WA, but according to the Fever, they turned that down. The Fever are also believed to have rejected travelling to Queensland to play the match. The impasse was reached.

Being unable to secure a workable solution is one thing. But it was what happened next that leaves the league – which, oncourt, is the best in the world – looking amateurish. While social media lit up with vacuum-filling chatter about what had occurred, the league was silent.

Where was the Netball Australia executive? Where was the acting CEO Ron Steiner before late on Saturday, when he gave a few lines to media? Where was executive general manager of media Spencer Retallack? Where was a public face, any face, addressing a hugely significant issue in the league? Why wasn’t there a Netball Australia representative on Channel Nine – the league broadcaster – on Sunday?

And what about the Netball Australia board, which is responsible for the governance and “strategic leadership” of the entire game in the country? Where was chair Marina Go?

Even on Saturday afternoon, when the league finally addressed the debacle, again it was via another unattributed press release. It said the cancelled match would be rescheduled and that an investigation would be undertaken by the board, which usually only meets half a dozen times a year.

The league also made it clear it would not “publicly discuss the details of the events until the investigation and subsequent report” is complete. More opaqueness.

A widely criticised statement from the Fever acknowledging that its “public response to the cancellation of the match caused offence to some netball fans” and a social media post from the Vixens welcoming the development followed on Saturday.

Even Liz Ellis – the unofficial face of the league – had little to offer in way of explanation on Sunday. “I haven’t been able to get any information out of Super Netball as to what that [investigation] might mean,” she said on Channel Nine’s Sports Sunday. “It’s embarrassing for the sport to get to this point.

“I feel like Super Netball have yet again been caught flat-footed and reactive, whereas in this pandemic world, you actually need to be proactive and we’re simply not seeing it.”

What the league needs is a grown-up in the room to take charge of the situation. To stand up and say: “I don’t care who started it, this is what’s going to happen.”