Raelene Castle’s end at Rugby Australia a mix of poor judgment, fatal missteps and rotten luck


It is worth putting on the public record one last time, however. In the midst of the coronavirus-induced chaos gripping all sports, and the bloodthirsty opportunism that rose up to meet it in rugby over recent weeks, Castle was blamed for all manner of structural, situational and cyclical problems facing the game.

Some of which she had a hand in, some of which she didn’t.

Two years and three months in the job without a major, demonstrable victory completely eroded the board’s confidence.

It was not an explosive letter, signed by 10 Wallabies captains, calling for the administration to “step aside” this week that cost the former Bulldogs and Netball New Zealand boss her job.

It added to the noise but ultimately two years and three months in the job without a major, demonstrable victory completely eroded the board’s confidence. On top of that the past month of the coronavirus crisis, which saw her work 20-hour days to strip cost from the organisation and save the game from bankruptcy, put a spotlight on her shortcomings.

Castle’s stubborn refusal for three weeks to hand over the 2019 balance sheet to the players union as she pursued a pay deal was fatal and unnecessary, costing her the respect of almost all the senior players at a time she needed them onside. Tellingly it was the arrival of new director Peter Wiggs, to whom the board may now look to lead them in the short term, at the negotiating table last week that broke the deadlock.

At the same time Wiggs and the other two new directors, Daniel Herbert and Brett Godfrey, were known to be underwhelmed by Castle’s detailed knowledge of the business, a flaw brought to light when RA’s survival came into question with the prospect of a worst-case scenario $120 million revenue hole if no rugby is played for the rest of the year.

Raelene Castle was not always easy to defend, but few of the problems laid at her feet were of her own making.

Raelene Castle was not always easy to defend, but few of the problems laid at her feet were of her own making.Credit:AAP

As for many of the other bullets fired at the Australian-born New Zealander? Some are fair and some ignore the fact Castle’s predecessors Bill Pulver and John O’Neill either created, or further entrenched, a business model for the game that saw it chase cash at the expense of competition integrity, all the while throwing bigger and bigger bags of money at players to ward off foreign raiders.

Pulver had to torch 20 per cent of the country’s professional footprint to save the code from bankruptcy. He stripped so much cost from the business that there was no high performance structure left to catch Ewen McKenzie when his Wallabies’ tenure spiralled out of control in 2014. Desperate and with no sports administration experience to help him spot the flaws, Pulver installed Michael Cheika as his replacement, with a similar absence of oversight.

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But back to Castle. What of last year’s $9.4 million loss, thrown around as if it is evidence of her mismanagement? It is hard to say for certain without seeing the books, which were not lodged with ASIC after last month’s annual general meeting. But most likely 2019 was a year like any other World Cup year, in which a loss of that scale is forecast. In 2015 RA recorded a $9.8 million loss, and in 2011 it was a $10.6 million deficit.

No broadcast deal for 2021? That sits at Castle’s feet because she walked away from a $20 million a year offer from current partners Foxtel on the understanding there was broader market interest in rugby’s five-yearly rights.

But also rotten luck, because the coronavirus outbreak and global shutdown of sport torpedoed negotiations with Optus and free-to-air broadcaster Ten, right at a point when the telco was 48 hours from tabling a formal offer.

The appointment of Scott Johnson as Australia's first director of rugby was one of the successes of Castle's reign.

The appointment of Scott Johnson as Australia’s first director of rugby was one of the successes of Castle’s reign.Credit:AAP

The Israel Folau saga? A bit of both. Folau’s repeated anti-gay comments on social media would have tested the best in the business and his ongoing exile from Australian sport proves her stance was correct. Settling out of court for a figure around the $4 million mark, to avoid a high-risk trial and a third season being drowned out by the controversy, was the right call.

But her call to re-sign Folau for another four years after his April 2018 comments, on almost as much money – after the withdrawal of a private donor, no less – and then her bungling of that contract, went to the heart of her capacity to run a major sport.

Castle trusted Folau and left the organisation with no contractual protection against a breach of that trust, when he doubled down with more anti-gay posts a year later. It meant defending rugby’s values would come with a hefty price tag, and was a clear sign to many close observers that she lacked the attention to detail and shrewd pragmatism required for the role.

Her poor relationship with Michael Cheika is another failure that can be chalked up to a combination of naivety and poor judgment. Castle made the calculated gamble she could ride out the final two years of the difficult Wallabies coach’s contract while building back up the organisation’s high performance structures and starting the search for his replacement, who would be her man. A year into her time at Moore Park, when she realised change was necessary, the board baulked. A dismal quarter-final exit at last year’s World Cup and ugly verbal brawl at an official Australian Embassy function in Tokyo were the fruit borne of those decisions.

It is also true that Castle was the victim of sexism from within the sport’s old guard. A former Wallabies coach once told the Herald that Australian rugby couldn’t be represented by a woman “who looks like that”. Vile social media commentary based on gender and appearance trailed Castle’s every move – and still does – and within a few months of her arrival at Moore Park a group of powerful former players decided they couldn’t handle “their” game being run by an outsider, much less a Kiwi.

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But Castle was never an easy administrator to defend, because of all of the missteps outlined above.

Just like Castle’s rugby league counterpart, Todd Greenberg, who resigned the NRL post on Tuesday, the world-altering coronavirus swiftly laid bare the structural flaws of both games, and of both leaders.

The Wallabies captains might have upped the pressure, but the reality was with rugby in trouble, the board had lost confidence that Castle was the person to lead them out of the mire.

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