Whistlers call up world first on Kiwi turf

The Black Sticks will play their part in history this weekend, when women and men will umpire international hockey side-by-side for the first time.

Something revolutionary will roll out on a New Zealand hockey turf on Saturday: for the first time in top-tier international history, a woman will umpire a men’s test match.

When the Black Sticks men play world champions Belgium at the brand new National Hockey Centre in Albany, Australian umpire Aleisha Neumann will control the game on the field alongside her fellow countryman Adam Kearns.

Two hours before, a man and a woman will also hold the whistles in the Black Sticks women’s match, also against the Belgians, to start their 2020 Pro League campaign. 

It will be the first time a mixed gender pairing has umpired an international of this status.

Both games are part of a trial by FIH, the world hockey body, in line with their “Equally Amazing” ethos: to be gender inclusive in all facets of the sport.

The “mixed gender appointments” will be trialled in eight games of this season’s Pro League, played by the world’s top nine men’s and women’s nations. But eventually it could be commonplace to have women and men umpiring side-by-side at the Olympics and the World Cup.

It’s a transformation that top New Zealand hockey umpire Amber Church can’t wait to see – for both women and men. The Gisborne schoolteacher is a regular in the Pro League – umpiring the women’s matches between Australia and Belgium last weekend and acting as video umpire for the men’s matches.  

“I think it will be great for our sport in general to have more equality,” Church says. “Eventually it shouldn’t be gender-based – if you’re good enough and you’re the right person, you’ll be appointed to the game.” 

NZ’s hockey officials selected for the Tokyo Olympics (from left): Simon Taylor, Kelly Hudson, Jackie Tomlinson, Amber Church and Dave Tomlinson. Photo: Hockey NZ

Church, in fact, kicked off her career umpiring male hockey – as a 15-year-old she got special dispensation to umpire the national boys’ U13 tournament, the Hatch Cup. “And I loved it, it was great. I even asked if I could go down the men’s hockey pathway, but they weren’t having a bar of it,” she laughs.

She regularly umpires men in local club games in Gisborne and up to U21 level. “The men’s game is faster, so your positioning has to be a little different. But I don’t think it would be any different than umpiring different countries – it’s more about the style of hockey that changes,” she says.

“Men need different skills to umpire a women’s match too – choosing which skills to use is different. There should be no reason why someone can’t umpire the opposite gender – as long as they’re the right person for the job and they’re good enough to do it.”  

Church was asked if she wanted to umpire a men’s international in this season’s trial. “I was 100 percent interested, but I wasn’t appointed, unfortunately,” she says.

Pro League matches must have neutral umpires, so Wanri Venter from South Africa and Australian Steve Rogers will be on the pitch for the historic Black Sticks women’s match on Saturday. In the first season last year, all of the women’s games in the Pro League were controlled by female umpires.

Hockey New Zealand’s technical manager Colin French says the mixed gender trial is “a big deal”, and one that New Zealand strongly supports.

“As a sport we take pride in our gender balance – we’re one of the few sports in the world were there’s a 50/50 balance for female and male players at an international level. This is a big part of Hockey NZ’s values – inclusivity in our hockey whanau,” he says.

“We have men umpiring women’s games and women umpiring men’s games throughout our club hockey.”

So why were two tests in New Zealand chosen to first trial a mixed pair of umpires?  

“I think the FIH looked at the right kind of game, the right kind of pairing and the right kind of umpires. They want to test the water first, dip a toe in – but it’s definitely here to stay,” says French, who’s also an umpire manager in the Pro League.

Australian umpire Aleisha Neumann speaks to Indian star Rani at last year’s Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images. 

In control of the men’s match, Neumann has had plenty of experience as both a player and an official. Also a schoolteacher, she has played hockey for Australian Country, and has umpired at the Commonwealth Games, World Cup and last year’s Pro League.

French says the umpires will have been chosen for the “standard characteristics” – mental aptitude, mobility, speed to move around the field, decision-making and the ability to build a rapport with players. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, the right capabilities will have you appointed.”

Speed has always been touted as the difference between the two sexes, but French says the women’s game has significantly increased in speed and skill in the last 15 years. “These girls hit harder than most men’s club players; their strength and speed has made a huge leap.”

It won’t be the first time a woman has umpired a men’s international. In keeping with “Equally Amazing”, Germany’s Michelle Meister and Belgium’s Laurine Delforge became the first two female umpires to take charge of men’s games in the Euro Hockey League in 2018.

It may be another four or eight years till mixed gender umpiring is adopted in Olympic hockey, Church believes. “But it will be so exciting. I can’t wait,” she says.

“It’s important to remember that this is still a trial, and it will continue to be reviewed. But we’re really fortunate to have so many capable umpires, male and female, in world hockey.”

*The two tests at Albany on Sunday afternoon – again the Black Sticks versus Belgium – will revert to the status quo of two male umpires at the men’s match, and two female umpires for the women. 

Suzanne McFadden

Suzanne McFadden is the editor of LockerRoom, dedicated to women’s sport.

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