It is a strange thing for one of rugby’s old brigade, your correspondent, to visit the shining new offices of Rugby Australia – right next to where the Sydney Football Stadium is now a smoking ruin.
Earnestly tapping away at computers inside this vast complex are the 120 people who work for the sporting business which makes about $120 million a year.
The atmosphere is corporate, pin-striped, busy, serious, digital and seemingly about as far as it is possible to get from the huge men in gold jerseys who’ve just been running into each other on foreign fields at the World Cup.
Presiding over the whole thing, right where the two worlds collide is the woman before me in her own modest office, Rugby Australia chief executive, Raelene Castle.Advertisement
A rare thing, surely Ms Castle, to have the skills to run a large staff in a seriously corporate environment, while also knowing how to manage a show that has the aim of helping the national team to victory?
“It is and that’s what makes the skill-set combination unique. There’s not that many people that have the experience to be able to cross over into both worlds and I do.”
Despite such confidence, Castle has not had an easy time of it. Coming to the position two years ago via running netball in her native New Zealand, before taking over the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL team, her tenure has seen the Israel Folau imbroglio, precious few victories by the Wallabies on the field, a ruptured relationship with Wallaby coach Michael Cheika and intense criticism that she is a large part of the cause of Australian rugby’s woes.
Following the Wallabies’ failed World Cup campaign, the calls for her dismissal have been persistent, vicious and endlessly repeated by everyone from broadcaster Alan Jones to respected rugby figures such as former Wallaby Greg Martin.
Have you shed tears over the attacks, not to mention being at the helm for these notable low points in the national rugby narrative?
“No …” she says frankly before pausing, smiling and adding, “wine helps.”
Castle appears neither hassled, harried, harangued nor one who is clinging like a cat to a curtain to her job. Instead, she comes across as calm, considered, forthright and confident that things will come good.
“I would like to stay in this position at least until the next World Cup. At the end of the day there’s one group that can sack me, the board.”
And do you have their confidence?
“Yes I do.”
She bristles at any suggestion that she wasn’t the right person for the job in the first place.
“There was a process, I was interviewed, had six interviews and during that time, not only did I get through every single one of them, I also got interviewed by all four of the chairmen of the Super Rugby clubs and they unanimously endorsed my appointment.”
Her biggest critic is Jones. She has made efforts to placate him, visiting the broadcaster at his home in the Toaster building at Circular Quay.
“First time was about when I started and the second time was about four months ago, with the idea being to develop a relationship and provide him background info on the progress at RA.”
And what happened four months ago?
“We had a perfectly nice hour together, we talked.”
The criticism has ramped up since the Wallabies lost in a World Cup quarter-final to England, which came with news that she and Cheika had something close to a stand-up blue at the Australian embassy in Tokyo during a cocktail party.
“It was unfortunate,” she says simply. “He was very unhappy with my insistence that it was his job to be there, with some of the Wallabies.”
That breakdown lead Cheika to say, upon his resignation, that it was an open secret that he had “no relationship with the CEO”.
Castle does not deny it, noting that: “While, my relationship with [Bulldogs coach] Des Hasler started off as a two out of 10 and ended at eight out of 10, with Cheika it started at a two, got to six, but … clearly didn’t end at a six.”
As to her rugby credentials being constantly questioned, Castle is resolute. “In my life,” she says, “the only times I have missed watching a Bledisloe are when I was in the air at the time. Rugby is in my blood and I love it. I’ve watched thousands of games, I’ve worked in high performance environments whether they’ve been netball, rugby league or rugby union. I understand the technical nature of the game.”
Have you been a victim of misogyny?
“I know on social media I have been. I know people say things like you know ‘Oh what would a girl know to run rugby.’ I’ve never had it in a professional business meeting or environment with any former Wallaby or with any senior person.”
Asked to list her achievements in her time in charge, she reels them off.
“We have an integrated high performance plan, where from school rep sides on up there is cohesive coaching all the way to the top, designed to deliver sustained success for the Wallabies and the Super Rugby teams … We’ve arrested the decline in rugby participation rates, and they have risen 4 per cent since I took over. And the other most important thing we’ve done over the last 24 months is we’ve signed all our young talent.”
She acknowledges the success, or otherwise, of her tenure will be widely judged on how the Wallabies fare, which lately has been badly. So how can it be that the most accomplished rugby coach in the world – the former Randwick hooker Eddie Jones, who just took England to the World Cup final – says he has not even been contacted by Rugby Australia.
“We’ve been in touch with Eddie’s management for the last four weeks,” she says, “and they’ve made it clear he’s not available as he is contractually committed to England. And I had a text exchange with Eddie just last night”.
Why? A chance that he might come on board, after all?
“No. It really has been clear that he is not available.”
Why get in touch then?
“To be able to show we have been in touch.”
In the meantime, hovering over her whole tenure is the Folau saga.
Despite Folau posting in mid-2018 his view that gays are going to hell, Ms Castle signed him up to a four year contract on a million dollars a year, whereupon he did it again.
A mistake, to sign him again, obviously?
“In hindsight, yes. But before signing he made the commitment that he would not do it again. It’s very sad because I believed him and I had an agreement that I supported him in being the proud Christian man that he is. And he told me that he would use his social media platforms respectfully.”
So when you’re put in the dock you’ll swear to me he made a commitment?
“Absolutely. I said to him you can’t talk disrespectfully about the gay community and he said ‘Raelene I understand’ and he stood up, he shook my hand and he hugged me. He said, ‘Absolutely Raelene I understand … On top of that he signed an employment contract which has an inclusion policy, a code of conduct and social media policy about respectful use of social media. And he chose not to – well he chose to breach that employment contract.”
And Castle makes an interesting point.
“If I had said we’re choosing not to re-sign Israel Folau because I don’t trust him that also would have been depicted as madness.”
The World Cup is over. The game goes on. And whatever the critics might say, it looks like it will have Raelene Castle at its head for some time to come.