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The Wrap: Rugby’s ugly in-fighting just got uglier

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5th April, 2020
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Last Tuesday, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle stood in front of staff and announced that most of them were stood down from their jobs, effective immediately.

It was a scene replicated in thousands of workplaces around Australia, including my own. The recently announced federal government Job Keeper scheme has helped ease the immediate financial concern for some employees and employers, but it is still a harrowing process.

It is instructive to note how many Rugby Australia employees challenged Castle, demanding that she hand over the financial accounts for them to examine, so that after they’d got their accountant to inspect the books, they would let her know what percentage pay cut they would accept.

You guessed it… none did. Just as no employees in my business did, just as employees all over Australia took in the same news, presented with compassion, but accepted as a fait accompli.

Not so Australia’s Rugby Union Player’s Association (RUPA), whose insistence on being provided with detailed accounts, and Castle’s reluctance to furnish them, resulted in a nasty little stoush at a moment where ‘we’re all in this together’ is the vibe reverberating through the rest of society.

A meeting yesterday appears to have righted the ship, but a question remains. Why are Australia’s professional rugby players (and players from other sports) treated differently from their fellow employees?

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Pre-1995, rugby players who earned selection for state and national teams gratefully accepted slaps on the back and whatever came their way in terms of a free feed, accommodation and so on.

The early days of professionalism were what ex-Ireland flyhalf David Humphries – whose career spanned both the amateur and professional eras – once described to me as “getting money for doing the same fun things we always did. Weekend matches, a bit of training and playing golf.”

In the 2000s, professionalism evolved and players became employees. Rugby entered the realm of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that formalised the relationship between them and their employers (clubs in England and France, national unions in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).

It’s an interesting and complex situation because despite the various protections offered under a formal agreement, being a professional rugby player doesn’t guarantee anything. There remains a highly subjective component – coaches must retain the ability to select and drop players as they deem fit.

Throw in the threat of injury and professional rugby becomes a fragile proposition for players. They can be here today, gone tomorrow in a heartbeat.

But does that make them any different from say, young musicians or aspiring actors, whose incomes are even more insecure? They do what they do knowing that the chance of them ever making a substantial living from it are small. But, for various reasons, they choose to do it anyway.

Under the CBA negotiated by RUPA and Rugby Australia, player salaries are drawn from a pool of money equal to 29 per cent of the substantive majority of Rugby Australia’s gross annual revenue.

James Slipper

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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It’s a favourable arrangement for players because if Rugby Australia’s profitability diminishes (for example, due to one-off or special costs like those associated with Israel Folau), their income pool is protected.

What they aren’t immune from is a collapse in Rugby Australia’s revenues, such as is now being experienced by the COVID-19 related shutdown, turning off broadcasting rights revenue.

At last Monday’s annual general meeting, Castle announced a 2019 loss of $9.4 million – roughly in line with the previously budgeted loss (typical for a World Cup year), plus costs associated with the Folau settlement.

This was pre-COVID-19. It is a very simple exercise to calculate the forward hit to revenue for each month or quarter that there is no rugby being played and broadcast.

In that respect, what financial detail did RUPA need to know, exactly? When an iceberg ripped into the hull of the Titanic, who stood around arguing about the precise size of the hole?

There is nothing in their CBA that entitles Australia’s players to a certain percentage of their salary if they are stood down. There is a clause that entitles them to view audited accounts, however the 2019 accounts are yet to be signed off by auditors, due to technicalities around quantifying the impact of COVID-19 in the current year.

The CBA also contains a material adverse change clause, which is another way of saying that all bets are off once Rugby Australia’s revenues are impacted below a level, roughly equivalent to 80 per cent of current revenue.

That is why RUPA will soon accept substantial pay reductions for the period in which they are stood down. Whatever money they end up getting, compared to their work colleagues, they will be ahead of the game.

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Businesses that are bleeding right now through having no revenue have found temporary salvation in being able to freeze operations and stand down their staff without being required to keep paying them. Rugby Australia is certainly one of those bleeding businesses.

Why then are they still burning hundreds of thousands of dollars a week paying players who are not working?

If the answer is that Rugby Australia is doing so in good faith, because without the players then there is no game, then why are they being pilloried for it? They are being pilloried by their own players and by media who – notably – took the opposite position against AFL players when they baulked at having to take pay reductions.

Unsurprisingly, The Australian’s Alan Jones painted Castle’s voluntary 50 per cent salary reduction to $400,000 per annum as insufficient, compared to other staff now on nothing, and players being asked to take pay cuts. Nowhere was the obvious point made: the players aren’t working, they’re at home on the sofa. Castle and her fellow sports CEOs are in a battle to save their sports, and have surely never worked so hard or under so much pressure.

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Before anyone jumps in to accuse a comfortable, sedentary rugby writer of attacking players, let me remind you that there is a popularly held view among old-timers and club players that today’s professional players are self-entitled, lazy and lack heart.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, some work harder than others, and some have more discipline when it comes to nutrition. Those are factors that help sort the very best from the best.

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But as a rule, this is a cohort of young men who are deadly serious about their sport, who strive for success and who work extremely hard to try to achieve it.

None of which explains why, when rugby is so short of cash, they are not receiving the Job Keeper allowance, just like their fellow employees.

Rugby Australia’s AGM also heralded a significant ramping up of what has now become a vicious campaign across various News Corporation outlets to remove Castle from the CEO position.

The renewed push is timed to take advantage of a perfect storm, being confirmation of a $9.4 million loss for 2019, the prospect of a $120 million black hole in rugby’s finances for the coming year, failure to lock in a TV deal with Fox Sports, no actual rugby to draw attention away from the politics, and the exit from the board of Cameron Clyne and Brett Robinson, two directors supportive of Castle.

By the end of the week, petrol can after petrol can was being tossed onto the bonfire. Supposed mishandling of Israel Folau was back on the agenda – despite there being widespread support from within the rugby community about the matter being settled last year.

Castle showing concern for staff she was sending home was trumpeted on news.com.au as a “cluster f**k”, although paradoxically, one of the most strident barbs directed at Castle and Rugby Australia by Jones was that “they care about no one.”

Michael Cheika sacking his assistant Steve Larkham on the night of Rugby Australia’s 2018 Christmas party, without authorisation to do so, was described on foxsports.com.au as a Castle “train smash”.

The Daily Telegraph’s eight million-dollar man, Jamie Pandaram, ran hard with the RUPA versus Castle dispute as further evidence of mismanagement. After confirmation that RUPA had finally been provided with a 2019 statement, Pandaram stated “they (the players) will have a clearer picture by Friday of how RA has been spending its money.”

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They knew already. The answer of course is, mostly on them.

The Australian’s Jessica Halloran went as far as stating that Castle had lost the support of backers on the board and was now “set to fall.” Prominent among Castle’s sins was her “poor judgment” in walking away from Foxtel’s TV rights offer, which “has proved to be a catastrophic move.”

Catastrophic for who? Castle, who not unreasonably was in the process of pursuing a competitive offer, and who could surely not have predicted the COVID-19 crisis? Or for Foxtel?

All of the tricks have been on display. The usual critics have been rolled out at intervals. Quotes taken from the aftermath of the Wallabies’ World Cup exit in October were dressed up to appear as if they were new.

The most outrageous claims are from unattributed or anonymous sources. New headlines claim that the storm continues to build around Castle after “another day of damaging headlines”. Their own headlines.

Further, touted CEO replacement Phil Kearns was allowed to outline his vision for the future – before coyly denying that he’d been approached to take on the role. Disaffected fans in Western Australia who might be cheering from the sidelines should take note – his plans don’t include you.

Former Australian Rugby Union player Phil Kearns.

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

RUPA might also note how Kearns and followers have immediate withdrawal from SANZAAR as a central tenet, and ask what that would do to player salaries, and why a public scrap that spurs Rugby Australia’s dissenters is in their best interest?

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Every article mentioning or quoting Kearns describes him as a “Wallaby great”, as if to add gravitas and credibility. Never is there disclosure that Kearns is an employee of Fox Sports, a disaffected party to the broadcast rights process, and was an unsuccessful candidate for Castle’s CEO position.

These are astonishing omissions that speak to the depths this campaign is prepared to plumb to destroy Castle – either to further wreck rugby’s value so as to allow Fox to pick the rights up at a bargain basement price, or to teach her a lesson for having the temerity to rebuff them.

Any pretext of fairness or reason has been long been cast aside. No attempt is made to assess or balance Castle’s performance in the context of the historic impediments that dog Australian rugby, decisions made by previous administrations, or the new crisis that has engulfed all sports.

Indeed, it is hard to recall a sports administrator in Australia who has been pursued with such vitriol and ruthlessness – certainly not since IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper was hounded and humiliated for allowing his daughter Sophie to carry the Olympic torch in 2000.

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Gosper was attacked by all and sundry for his trouble. What makes this situation so fascinating and nasty all at once – and a case study for future consideration on the perils of cross-media ownership – is that it has now become such a co-ordinated campaign.

At the end of the day, what will determine Castle’s fate is whether or not a majority of the board are prepared to move against her, not the noise from News Corporation’s hit squad – one that observant rugby followers will have noticed does not include The Australian’s highly respected rugby writer, Wayne Smith, who has not been party to this campaign.

Whatever the outcome – there is no indication from Castle that she is going anywhere, nor from her adversaries that they are near finished – this is already a shameful episode in Australian rugby.

Regular readers of this column know that opportunities to drop in a musical reference are rarely passed up. It is thus with sadness that this week also marked the passing, at 81, of Bill Withers.

A man of high principles and owner of one of the purest voices ever heard in music, I found myself struggling to nominate a favourite song from so many gems. This tribute from ex-USA president Bill Clinton nicely sums up the man and the times.

“I love listening to Bill Withers sing. Today as we mourn his death, we should lean into the sentiment of one of his most loved songs: lean on each other when times are tough and know that there’s always tomorrow. May he rest in peace.”