Neville Lawrance, softball - 'Bloody mongrel'...but a 'bloody' good one

Softball official in action
Author:  Cathy Reid
Issue: Volume 5 Number 1

Being referred to in a strangely affectionate way as that ‘bloody mongrel’ is something Neville Lawrance has come to accept after 23 years as a softball umpire.

Umpiring has been an all consuming passion that began one quiet, sunny Saturday afternoon when Lawrance went to watch his wife, Rosie, play softball. Two decades later he has the unwavering reputation as one of Australia’s best…and fairest…softball umpires, with an Olympic Games under his belt.

‘I was initially roped in as Assistant Coach, but then my work conditions changed and I wasn’t able to get to training any more. By that time I was hooked so I turned to umpiring,’ Lawrance said.

The 52-year-old, from Modbury Heights in Adelaide, had always had an interest in umpiring and had been a basketball official for 10 years.

At the root of his dedication was a desire to see fair play.

At first he had no burning ambition to rise up the ranks of officialdom, but rather took it ‘one step at a time’.

However, he was driven to be better and took every opportunity to improve his style. This meant moving to stronger competitions and always taking on new challenges.

His first foray into umpiring at the national level came in 1991 at the Under 16 nationals in Hobart.

‘In a word, that was scary,’ Lawrance recalls. ‘It was a whole new ball game. Six examination games over four days, umpiring with other officials I’d never met before and controlling games with players I didn’t know.’

But one of the biggest differences was encountering coaches who had a good knowledge of the rules of the game, or who at least thought they did, and weren’t afraid to let the umpires know about it.

‘They were a lot more forthright in questioning calls and that was quite intimidating at first.’

The scrutiny of his umpiring didn’t faze Lawrance for long and he quickly discovered the upside of being at a major event.

‘The camaraderie between the officials is absolutely fantastic and I look forward every year to meeting up with these guys. Some of them you don’t see for three to four years and you just pick up with them straight away.’

Lawrance gained his International Softball Federation accreditation in 1997 after attending an umpire development clinic over three days.

‘It was a camp environment and I found out how much I didn’t know. I learnt about things I’d never even thought of, like how you can control your adrenalin levels so you can perform at your optimum level. A whole new world opened up.’

His first overseas trip was to New Zealand on tour with the Australian Under 19 team.

‘All of a sudden I was out of my comfort zone in a different environment and for the first time I found myself attached to a team, whereas before I’d never had that affinity.

‘Of course, when you get out on the diamond you still have to be very impartial.’

It was in New Zealand where Lawrance was first introduced to a different style of umpiring, which was a four-man rotation system. It was a system he recommended be introduced back in Australia at some major events.

He quickly made a mark on the international scene, which led to the highlight of his career so far — appointment to umpire at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

‘I found out when I was at work and I was walking on air, floating around the office. It was just fabulous.’

While he was a little disappointed with Athens itself and the lack of crowds at the games, as far as officiating goes, he says it doesn’t get any better.

‘It’s the biggest stage any team or player can strive for and as an umpire the pressure is like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

‘It’s not something you can prepare for or practise. You just have to have it in you to step up a notch.

‘That said you still have to try and treat it like an ordinary game and stay relaxed. That’s really the key. All the experience you’ve gathered over the years is going to kick in and help you make the right decisions.’

Not everyone is always going to be satisfied with those decisions and over the years Lawrance has learned to roll with the criticism and take it in his stride.

‘A lot of it is gamesmanship. A coach may make a big scene by challenging a decision, but we know, and they know, it’s not going to change anything.

‘A lot of times it’s all about the coach being seen to be standing up for their girls. Even though it’s not going to make a difference, they can go back to the dugout and mutter "bloody mongrel" and their team feel like they’re doing something.’

Because he approaches every game the same way, Lawrance knows there can never be any question marks over his integrity.

‘It gives me the utmost satisfaction going out and knowing I’ve done the best job I can. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve provided a service that has allowed a game to happen.’

It’s something he’s keen to pass on to others.

‘There’s so much you can do and achieve as an official. There are so many steps up the ladder and the world really is the limit.’

And if anyone is proof of that it’s Neville Lawrance…and he’s happy to concede that a thick hide and a bit of an ego can only help.

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