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Queensland Firebirds face criticism after pregnant stalwart Romelda Aiken-George misses out on 2023 Super Netball contract

Queensland Firebirds face criticism after pregnant stalwart Romelda Aiken-George misses out on 2023 Super Netball contract
Queensland Firebirds face criticism after pregnant stalwart Romelda Aiken-George misses out on 2023 Super Netball contract

Romelda Aiken-George has been a mainstay in the Queensland Firebirds’ shooting circle since 2008, when she signed her first professional netball contract in Australia and left her family to pursue opportunity overseas as an inexperienced teenager.

During the 14 seasons the Jamaican has spent in the purple dress, she has helped the Firebirds win three premierships, won multiple MVP awards and was the first player to reach the milestone of 5,000 goals in the national netball league.

Aiken-George even holds the record for the most goals scored by an individual in a grand final (63).

Romelda Aiken Laura Geitz ANZ Championship trophy
The Firebirds have never won a trophy without Aiken-George.(Getty: Jason O’Brien)

In September 2021 she re-signed with the Firebirds for her 15th consecutive season. Then she fell pregnant and decided to take the year off while she prepared to become a first-time mother.

Originally, 33-year-old Aiken-George had hoped to start the season, tick off the 200-game milestone she is just two games shy of, and then consider her options around maternity leave.

But a mixture of morning sickness and a bout of COVID changed her mind and she officially withdrew five days before the 2022 season start.

Speaking with former Firebirds teammate Natalie Medhurst for News Corp at the time she said:

Whether she will have the opportunity to go out on her terms is now uncertain, as the 32-year-old took to Instagram to let fans know that she would not be making a comeback in 2023.

Aiken-George said the club had made the decision for her, deeming it “too risky” to offer her one of the 10 full-time contracts for 2023.

The club said it “unequivocally denies that Romelda Aiken-George was not offered a contract in the ten because she is pregnant”.

A tumultuous signing period

The news follows the departure of head coach Megan Anderson, who stepped down after the Firebirds narrowly missed the finals for the second season under her tenure.

Megan Anderson
Megan Anderson stepped down after two years as Firebirds head coach.(Getty: Daniel Pockett)

Despite the Firebirds head coach position currently being vacant, the club have carried on announcing their roster for 2023, with all teams due to be finalised by July 22.

The Firebirds already faced unwanted attention last week, when they announced during NAIDOC week that Wakka Wakka woman Jemma Mi Mi would not be part of the team next year.

Then, in the days that followed, they re-signed all three shooters that took the court in 2022 – Gretel Bueta, Mia Stower and Donnell Wallam.

Former Leeds Rhinos player and West Coast Fever training partner Wallam was brought into the team as a late replacement for Aiken-George, winning plenty of fans in her debut Super Netball season.

The 28-year-old’s performances also impressed the Diamonds, who rewarded her with selection in the Australian Commonwealth Games squad.

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Donnell Wallam was noticed by the Diamonds selectors while trying to fill the shoes of Aiken-George.(AAP: Jono Searle)

When the Firebirds confirmed Wallam would be back for 2023, many wondered what this meant for Aiken-George.

Sources say she is due to give birth in August, which would have given her roughly seven months to get back to full fitness before the season.

Former Firebirds players who did not want to go on the record told the ABC they were shocked Aiken-George would not be given a chance to prove herself in that time frame and said they believed she still had more to give.

They remain hopeful that the news does not mean the end of her career and that she will don the purple dress again in 2024 with a full preseason under her belt.

The ABC approached the Firebirds for comment on the matter. Responding under the Queensland Netball banner they neither confirmed nor denied the news, saying the “roster is incomplete”, with the head coach, three contracted spots and training partners still to be locked in.

“This senior playing list is determined over months of scrutiny by our list management committee made up of the CEO, COO, GM of high performance, head coach, coaching staff and head of elite development,” the statement read.

“Gretel Bueta, Donnell Wallam and Mia Stower developed a strong and proven combination during the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball season.

“On Saturday night at the club’s gala awards event, and alongside other long-standing players also being recognised for their service to the club including teammate Gabi Simpson, and former Firebirds Peta Stephens and Laura Geitz, Romelda was honoured for her 15 years’ service, and spoke of her love for the club and its people and indicated that her playing future was yet to be determined.”

Later in the day they issued a second statement that said the decision around Aiken-George had been made for high-performance reasons and had no correlation to her pregnancy.

“In the face of some still implying that the Firebirds club makes list management decisions based on anything other than high-performance related factors, the club unequivocally denies that Romelda Aiken-George was not offered a contract in the ten because she is pregnant,” the statement read.

“The Firebirds have developed a strong club culture over many seasons that embraces and supports life decisions of players, and suggestions that the club operates otherwise is not fair on the current and former playing group and management.”

More support is needed in the player’s CBA: Former Diamond

The Firebirds had garnered a reputation for being a welcoming place for mothers, after offering contracts to a number of returning first-time mums over the past few years.

Kim Ravaillion and Eboni Usoro-Brown both found fresh opportunities at the Firebirds after giving birth to their daughters, while Laura Geitz and Gretel Bueta were retained by the club after they took a year off during their pregnancies.

Queensland Firebirds' Gretel Bueta, Giants Netball's April Brandley and Queensland Firebirds' Kim Ravaillion with their children
A new wave of mums returning to the sport have been celebrated over the past few years in the competition.(Instagram: Giants Netball)

In the Super Netball era, players have more rights than ever before, after the competition introduced maternity leave and parental care when it formed its all-Australian league.

As part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), players are entitled to 100 per cent income protection on all earnings for up to two years if they fall pregnant, but Aiken-George only signed a one-year contract for 2022.

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Former Diamonds midcourter Kim Green said although nothing is ever guaranteed in professional sport, more support was needed in this area.

“No-one deserves to go out on their terms, nothing is ever promised, and I think that’s one thing I’ve always recognised in sport, is that you can be as loyal as you can, do every training, tick all the boxes, but your selection is still based off someone else’s opinion and that can always change,” she said.

“So it’s not that I think she deserves to go out on her own terms, but when someone has spent all year supporting that team and I’ve seen her training and making sure that she’s ready to have a quick turnaround, given she’s having her baby in August, she still has six or seven months to get her body back up and ready to go … she’s still busting herself to get there.

“People have come to realise that our CBA isn’t as tight as what we would have liked it to be, especially in that pregnancy clause. We’ve had too many stories now of players that have fallen pregnant and then not been given an opportunity with their club a year after.

“How do we continue to protect these athletes and keep them in our system? Because it’s one thing to be pregnant and it’s another to have the stress of looking after another human and then be delisted, my goodness, I could only imagine the pressure that comes with that when you thought you were going to get a chance.”

What has been confusing for fans is that Firebirds goal attack Bueta – who took 2020 off on maternity leave – was lauded for her quick turnaround to get back on court last year, just four months after giving birth.

Bueta was 26 at the time, while Aiken is 33 and was already battling with an ankle injury in the 2022 preseason, so her circumstances are a little different.

Gretel Bueta with baby Bobby Quad Series
Gretel Bueta is interviewed after a Diamonds match while holding her son, Bobby.(Getty: Alex Davidson)

Regardless of this, Green said the decisions around a player’s ability to bounce back should be assessed once the baby is actually born.

“Why would you want to be a mother or fall pregnant as a netballer?” she asked.

“We have seen some great stories recently, but we’ve also seen some bad ones.

“In the next CBA negotiations, there needs to be a working mother’s group implemented that involves the ones currently active in the system. … That way they can advocate for the future mums of Super Netball.”

Posted , updated 

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