Raelene Castle is navigating Rugby Australia through uncharted waters

Sometimes the best way to survive a new job is to dive in the deep end and prove your worth by merely staying afloat. It's fair to say when Raelene Castle started as chief executive of Rugby Australia in 2017, she had no idea just how deep the water was. The Wagga-born, Auckland-raised Castle was coming off a four-year tenure with the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs in the National Rugby League. Before that, she had been the CEO of Netball New Zealand. But running a team in the NRL is one thing, taking over at Rugby Australia – as a Kiwi – is another.

There were a few raised eyebrows when she got the gig, especially considering former Wallaby Phil Kearns was in the mix. "Raelene Castle? Give me a break," ranted one-time national coach, Alan Jones. "You can't be serious about handing the game over to people like this, it's nonsense."

Ironically, in-person Castle gives off a distinct no-nonsense vibe. We meet in Pyrmont, a short stroll from the apartment she shares with partner Greg Jones. "I've got a shocking cold, but I've told my body I can't afford to get sick right now," Castle, 49, explains. At the top, even illness is non-negotiable.

It's been a little over two years since Castle's first day at Rugby Australia, a period full of intense, and constant scrutiny. "Comes with the territory," she offers. Most recently, the battle for the future of the games broadcast rights has thrust Castle into the spotlight once more — the star of a movie she is supposed to be directing. "There is a real fascination with administration in this country," she sighs. "But the bottom line is when you've got controversial issues going on, you become the face of your organisation."

If Castle ever chooses to write a book about her time in the game, then Controversial Issues could very well be the title. The first chapter would begin in April 2018 with the Israel Folau Instagram debacle. Welcome to the deep end, Raelene.

When you've got controversial issues going on, you become the face of your organisation.

Devoutly religious, Folau has always used social media as a kind of digital pulpit. On April 4, 2018, one of Folau's followers commented on a picture, asking @izzyfolau, what was God's plan for gay people?

Folau didn't miss a beat: "HELL ... Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God."

That reply saw the superstar Wallaby hauled in front of his employers, Castle included, and reminded of his obligations under Rugby Australia's Inclusion Policy. Many saw Rugby Australia's failure to appropriately sanction Folau as proof that the game needed him more than he needed them. A few months later, Folau was re-signed to a $5 million, four-year deal, making him the games highest-paid player. A masterclass in mixed messages.

In April 2019 Folau fired off again; another post detailing why homosexuals (as well as adulterers, and liars, and drunks) were hellbound. It sparked a national debate, spilling into lounge rooms and dinner tables across the country, and Rugby Australia terminated Folau's contract on May 17. That end was only the beginning of sorts, with Folau launching an unlawful dismissal suit while using fundraising platforms to raise obscene amounts of money for his appeal. At every step of the way, the Folau furore had people talking about rugby for all the wrong reasons. Finally, in December 2019, the two parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Regrets, Raelene Castle, has a few.

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"You can't go through something like that and think there weren't moments in time that you wouldn't change," admits Castle. "But that's the benefit of hindsight, if I knew Israel was going to post [again], we wouldn't have re-contracted him."

Critics have questioned Castle's handling of the Folau situation, pointing to the hefty payout as evidence that Rugby Australia won the battle, but lost the war. Ultimately, the endgame became about harm minimisation, stop the bleeding to save the game. Few CEOs find themselves in such a precarious predicament — held hostage by their star employee, while accidentally igniting a national conversation about free speech in the workplace.

"We had to get it right for our internal staff, players and our fans and then the whole sort of line in the sand was secondary," says Castle. "But I do think it raised a level of public debate and I know from conversations I've had with other chief executives, that they've changed their HR policies because of this situation."

The Folau drama was compounded by an unimpressive 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign which saw the Wallabies crash out in the quarter-finals.After the tournament, national coach Michael Cheika was sacked and promptly claimed he had "no relationship" with Castle. The net result of so much negativity? The average punter thinks rugby is on the ropes.

"I mean if we are candid about it, when you are not winning, people look for reasons as to why," counters Castle. "That's just the reality of the world; if we lose, everyone's disappointed."

But can that disappointment be counted in dollars? Earlier this year Rugby Australia decided to take the broadcast rights to tender. Incumbent holder, News Corp Australia [majority owner of Fox Sports Australia] had reportedly looked to continue the current deal, offering $40 million-a-year over five years. Castle knocked it back. You always pay less for bruised fruit, and right now rugby is hardly the pick of the bunch, but for Castle, this is about more than the bottom line.

"Fox Sports has been a great supporter of rugby for a long period, but we couldn't get to a position that worked for Rugby Australia," she explains."Our focus is on securing the best commercial deal but also prioritising access, finding the easiest way for our fans to engage with our sport."

Basically, in a country that boasts more professional sports teams per head of population than any other, rugby needs eyeballs. Viewing figures are down; crowds are dwindling, the game they play in heaven is in a fight to the death. "The numbers tell you, having a free-to-air component of the deal makes a difference," says Castle. "We must have some of our product available for casual observers, or fans that can't afford Foxtel."

But just as Castle has shown her hand, the universe has thrown another curveball. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused the widespread shutdown of sport around the world, Super Rugby included. Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March bringing a premature end to the current season.  Rugby Australia then revealed plans for a new five team domestic competition with a proposed start date of April 3. That too was shelved in the past week following the increased spread of Coronavirus. 

Unsurprisingly, all of this noise has triggered an abrupt halt to any to the broadcast negotiations.

"We have taken the decision to suspend our media rights process while we deal with this unprecedented situation," Castle said during a press conference last Monday.  "The impact of government decisions to contain the coronavirus has seen rugby in Australia impacted in ways that we could never have imagined," Castle said.

"However any ongoing restrictions will put extreme pressure on Rugby Australia's finances.

"We are obviously not the only sport in the country facing these challenges in the current environment.'

And that's certainly true - rugby is in good company, with the NRL, AFL and A-League also suspending their seasons too.  But rugby is the only code that finds itself in a strange rock-and-a hard-place situation. 

The game may very well see out the remainder of the year with no matches played, then head into a negotiation process with a product that has been gathering dust on the shelf. There's little doubt that in the last couple of weeks, Castle may have reflected upon her refusal to do a broadcast deal with News Corp Australia and wondered, "what if?"

Perhaps Castle's willingness to gamble with the sports' future stems from her tumultuous two-and-a-bit years at the helm. It hasn't been simple, why take the easy option now?  Once the dust settles from the Coronavirus, and we reach a new normal, the broadcast negotiations will resume and Castle will once again hunt for the deal she thinks rugby deserves. 

If it pays off, she will be lauded as a saviour, the right woman for the job. If it doesn't, the Alan Jones' of the world may rejoice.  Either way, Castle maintains a healthy dose of perspective on the issue, aware that in the business of sport, nothing lasts forever. Based on her internal clock, the shelf life of a chief executive is around six-years.  "I think that's enough time to deliver real value, try to put the organisation into a better place than you found it," says Castle.

And then what?  "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what's next, only what's now," admits Castle, and who can blame her?. For now, Raelene Castle might just be the dice roll rugby so desperately needs.