When Raelene Castle took on the job of Rugby Australia CEO in late 2017, everyone knew she had signed up for a tough gig. None would have foreseen just how thankless it ended up being.
Castle was not the problem with rugby in this country, nor is she the cause of the issues the game faces right now. It is an indictment on the game and, in particular, the way it is covered by some that she needed to resign in order to provide the clear air for rugby to progress.
The game is in better shape than what it was when she arrived in late 2017, and there’s little doubt some of the developments made in the last couple of years will bear fruit in the coming ones.
The revitalisation of the Junior Wallabies program saw them come within a point of winning the Under-20 World Championship. The bulk of that squad has been retained by the 15-man code, not lost overseas or to rugby league.
Had sport not been put on hold due to coronavirus, we’d be talking about the likes of Harry Wilson, Isaac Lucas and Noah Lolesio as potential Wallabies debutants in July.
Indeed, it will be impossible to properly appraise the merits of Castle’s tenure without mentioning the horrid ill-luck which came in the form of COVID-19.
She would have been largely judged on the quality of the next broadcast deal. Had a lucrative one been struck with Optus and a free-to-air partner – and it’s believed just such an agreement was within weeks of being signed before the pandemic hit – her decision to take to the open market would have been lauded as one of the savviest and most important administrative decisions made in recent rugby history.
Instead, with negotiations on hold even as much of regular life was, there was easy fodder for Castle’s critics: “we don’t have enough money or a broadcast deal”, “she should have taken Fox’s offer when it was on the table”, conveniently ignoring that the money from said broadcast deal would not materialise until the following season, that COVID-19 has raised the spectre of force majeure cancellations, and broadcasters aren’t exactly coughing up previously agreed fees with sport on hold (see: A-League, NRL). A contract signed pre-coronavirus would not have offered the certainty some think it would have.
That the pandemic occurred immediately after a World Cup year – always the hardest on rugby’s finances due to reduced game-day revenue – was also unfortunate, the $9.4 million deficit another easy punching bag. Never mind the $9.8 million loss reported for the last World Cup year in 2015, nor that a tough financial year was forecast in advance of 2019.
Perhaps Castle’s finest achievement is the Wallabies coaching team assembled under Dave Rennie. Rennie, despite a lack of experience at Test level, is a proven winner at Super Rugby level and has experience coaching overseas.
With gifted assistants Scott Wisemantel (formerly Eddie Jones’ attack coach with England) and Matt Taylor (the ex-Scotland and Glasgow defence coach) working with him, and director of rugby Scott Johnson above them all, the right structure is in place for the Wallabies to move in the right direction when they next start taking to the field.
Yes, some will argue those changes should have been made earlier, but it’s illogical to simultaneously criticise the state of Rugby AU’s finances and advocate for the removal of a coach still under contract – one signed under a previous administration.
At any rate, the board members who didn’t back Castle better have talked to Rennie and made sure this change of CEO hasn’t cost the Wallabies their extremely promising coaching set-up.
Add in that the 2027 World Cup hosting rights coming Australia’s way is looking more and more like a foregone conclusion, and it appears there may be positive years head. Just don’t hold your breath for Castle to be given due credit if they do eventuate.
Of course, it is impossible to evaluate her tenure without looking at the handling of Israel Folau last year, which rightly or wrongly pissed an awful lot of people off.
Castle herself admitted she would have managed certain parts of that episode differently, but – and try to put aside for a moment the moral, ethical and religious arguments which are so intrinsically linked to the Folau case for a moment – Rugby AU had to act to retain a range of major sponsors threatening to walk over Folau’s behaviour. I’m yet to see someone propose an alternate way it could have been dealt with that would have kept everyone happy.
None of this is to say Castle was perfect, that the administration she led made nothing but faultless decision after faultless decision. That would be naive in the extreme. The game is still in a precarious position, all the more so because of COVID-19.
But much of the criticism levelled at her has been lacking in its own merit, ignorant to the state of the game prior to Castle’s arrival. Whether it was coming from the News Corp monolith filthy at being spurned at the negotiation table or the group of eleven ten former Wallabies captains calling for the administration to step aside, very little of it indeed has been constructive.
Turns out being constructive doesn’t matter when you can instead be very, very loud. Castle herself was clearly capable of carrying on in the face of the criticism, but she could not continue in the role without the support of the board. No CEO can.
Those who have been loud now need be constructive. Continued in-fighting and squabbling will only harm rugby, no matter the chief executive.
If there can be one positive development from this sorry, shameful episode, let it be that all supporters and stakeholders take the opportunity to come together and work for the sport’s betterment, understanding they all want it to prosper, even if everyone is going to have different opinions about what that looks like and how to get there. And if there are any who don’t want that outcome, they can follow Castle out the door.