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Is there any clean way out for Rugby Australia?

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9th May, 2019
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Isreal Folau is the story that just keeps on giving, but let’s take another look at the issues and possible outcomes.

First, what is the issue? It’s that Folau has used his rugby and Wallabies platform to leverage his religious views.

It’s perfectly fine in concept, but his views are basically at odds with community’s politically correct standards and three of Rugby Australia’s biggest sponsors, Qantas, Asics and Land Rover.

In a cash-strapped overpopulated sport market RA need and want much more money than they currently have, whereas Folau’s comments have threatened the financial viability of rugby in Australia. Naturally, if the press didn’t pick up on his Instagram post, none of this would have happened – but that’s another article.

Raelene Castle has to date done a pretty damn good job on this topic, but she must keep a few lines drawn in the sand. Players and other staff are all employees and they need to toe the corporate line. Sponsors need to hand over the cash to enhance their own brands by association with rugby in Australia and the Wallabies profile.

Raelene Castle

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle (AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

This balancing act often has its challenges when people in the organisation with higher profiles go off the reservation with social media posts, videos of silly acts or entanglements with the police and the odd substance.

Conversely, sponsors also get a bit sensitive when they see the value proposition slip with these antics, and they do throw their weight around to gain some control over the actions of another organisation’s people.

To be clear, the CEO of Rugby Australia must be one of the toughest gigs in Australia. We are all way too passionate, mark way too hard and expect way too much. There has to be a great drinking club of ex-rugby CEOs lamenting of the melodramas they had to put with, and then there’s our old mate Alan Jones! More intelligent, passionate and far more powerful than most, he has a greater love for being part of the problem than the fix. But, really, that’s just only my opinion – AJ is sincere, if not destructive.

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And as for Folau himself? Well, he is a sincere and devout Christian who holds his beliefs in his heart. They don’t sit comfortably with the wider community, but everyone has heard his views and they cannot be unheard.

Izzy has been earning a ton of money playing sport and rugby more recently. His talent places him in a special place in society where he earns at least ten times what I do each year, and good luck to him. I am a little jealous, I must admit, but professional sport is very unkind and quite unhealthy to life’s long game.

Israel Folau

Israel Folau (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Call me naive, blast me if you must, but I don’t think Izzy has understood the position he has in the community and the power he has to set standards and be a role model for the general public. Plus I don’t really think he has understood what the impact on his life, the church and his family members would be if his spectacular salary were to go away for whatever reason.

So what outcomes can we expect from here?

If Izzy’s contract were to be terminated, we would lose a great footballer who enhances our chances of winning the World Cup. Remember every millimetre towards holding ol’ Bill means more sponsor dollars for RA. So, all things being equal, 99.9 per cent of all rugby geeks would have listed Izzy in the squad to go before this saga erupted.

Shoot the star! Izzy has possibly done enough to be sacked – that is, have his contract terminated. What message does that send out to all the Islander heritage players, most of whom hold related Christian beliefs? A fun fact is that more than a third of the current squad of prospects see some closeness in beliefs with Izzy and a platform of further discrimination. Something we really could do without is a fracture in the playing group over religious beliefs.

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Alternatively, we could ignore it all and send Izzy back to the paddock to play rugby, which is what he does best. If we win or get close, all will be forgiven, swept under the carpet et cetera. Raelene would get a new mega headache as all players and high-profile staff will then be given the keys to take any idea out for a drive around the social media block. This solution is possible, if not a tad fanciful. But as a rugby fan fantasy has its part to play especially in Test match season.

Or, finally, there’s what I think will happen – though I’m just speculating of course.

We could find a medium position with a ton of compromise.

Izzy gets a belting from all in the form of a significant fine, perhaps 25 to 40 per cent of his existing contract for the term. That would hurt for sure, but $600,000 to $750,000 a year is still a take-home pay packet of the likes I will never see.

Rugby Australia would also save a ton of cash in legal fees and payouts, which could be spent on grassroots rugby development. We could make Izzy the figurehead of it and let him earn back the respect he had obtained prior to this saga. He could also win the public back over with money spent on the scared elephant of rugby, ‘the grassroots’.

We could allow Izzy to play the odd game of Shute Shield in a club in the bottom half of the competition to help their fan-base.

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Sponsors will feel that have some leverage over their sponsorship dollars, but RA still is in control. Get Israel Falou back out their playing rugby and help win games.

The outspoken players, like Izzy, Will Genia and coach Michael Cheika will all toe the line and get back to the business of winning rugby matches, creating good sponsorship opportunities and attracting more people to the sport. In short, make Raelene and all of us happy!

Raelene will have demonstrated some very articulate management by finding a way through all this, and the organisation understands the boundaries. Plus someone will instruct a good lawyer to write a better standard of player contract.

And then there’s old mate Alan Jones. Alan will of course yell from the highest tree that RA is incompetent, the board should be sacked, Raelene should go and whatever else he can to sell a few more papers and increase his profile. But what saddens me is that he is so intelligent and understands the rugby space, I just wish he was a team player.