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The Wrap: Unravelling Australian rugby’s unholy war

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26th April, 2020
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So how did it get to this? The execution of a CEO who committed no capital offence? And, with demands being made for governance changes to Australian rugby, the prospect of more bloodletting to come?

In part one of this two-part series today we’ll look at events surrounding Raelene Castle’s exit and the key driving factors behind it. Next Monday, in part two, we will consider a path forward for Australian rugby, including a detailed look at possible solutions – something that has been notably absent from the debate so far.

On Friday, 24 April, Rugby Australia chairman Paul McLean submitted himself to an hour of questions from the rugby media. The session was notable for McLean, a highly respected 31-Test Wallaby, businessman and long-serving administrator, barely masking his emotion as he addressed questions with an almost disarming frankness and honesty.

It was raw and pure, something that rarely happens in these days of professional sports organisations tightly controlling their messaging.

McLean spoke passionately about the abhorrent campaign waged against Castle – some of it from certain sections of the media, who throughout have refused to acknowledge important commercial conflicts of interest, and some of it personal attacks made through social media channels.

So where has all of this come from? What does this say about our society? Our sport? Are we to believe that now Castle has been hounded from the position of CEO rivers of gold will this week begin to flow back to grassroots clubs?

Former Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Australian rugby’s dissenters can be broadly corralled into five groups:

  • News Corp media, who have a vested interest in driving the value of Australian rugby downwards for commercial benefit, potentially to gain greater control over the professional game and/or to extract retribution on Castle for rebutting their initial rights offer;
  • people who wish to restore Australia’s rugby power base to its ‘rightful’ home, Sydney club rugby;
  • players and fans aggrieved at rugby administrators disenfranchising the grassroots supporter base, who believe that change at board and executive management level will deliver a better outcome;
  • people across the rugby community frustrated and angry at Australia’s continued lack of success at Test and Super Rugby level; and
  • a vocal and committed cohort determined to see the board punished for the exclusion of the Western Force from Super Rugby in 2015.
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Prompted by sections of the News Corp media ramping up a vicious attack on Castle in recent weeks, I took time out to re-read Killing Fairfax, a 2013 Walkley Award-winning account by Pamela Williams of the battle for media control in Australia.

Overrun by technological and societal change, traditional media is today a gravely wounded beast, a shadow of its former self in terms of its financial worth and unfettered power. But it’s not so weakened that an old-fashioned hit squad can’t be rustled up – tactics graphically outlined in this book – to show an upstart female rugby administrator who really is boss.

Now that retribution has been exacted, it remains to be seen whether matters will be left there or whether, after wreaking heavy damage on the value of rugby’s brand, News Corp still wants rugby. If the Optus/Ten interests have been scared away and if Foxtel remains solvent, there remains the potential to pick up the pieces for a song.

What is undeniable is that the timing of News Corp’s assault, along with the COVID-19 crisis obliterating Rugby Australia’s revenue stream, provided the perfect cover for those pursuing Castle and her board for the other reasons listed.

Raelene Castle speaks to the media

(Hanna Lassen/Getty Images)

McLean was at pains to point out that last week’s captain’s letter played no role in influencing or diminishing the board’s support of Castle. But it is also certain that the way the letter was presented as a demand, the prominence it was afforded in the media and its timing fatally damaged Castle’s standing.

George Gregan’s playing career spanned the beginning of Super Rugby in 1996 until 2007. He was a central figure in an era during which player power became a dominant theme in Australia rugby. For Gregan, other signatories to the letter and the influential Rod Kafer, things have more often than not fallen the way of their choosing.

As much as McLean and a huge cohort of rugby fans, appalled by events, would wish to deny it, the presentation of a letter on Tuesday and the scalp of the CEO on Thursday will have delivered the captain’s group validation, an enormous rush of power and a feeling of invincibility.

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Did I mention irony? How about the captain’s letter playing the ‘neglected grassroots’ card, stating, “Our rural clubs, junior clubs, subdistricts and community clubs have been let down and we firmly believe transformation is needed across the game in this country”.

Gregan’s career also coincided with player salaries growing from being a bonus for playing a sport they loved to a level that provided the best players with a lucrative, enviable existence.

Gregan himself has been rewarded handsomely from the game, not only from Super Rugby and Test rugby but also raking in what was at the time an eye-watering payment for a foray into Sydney club rugby. This was precise time the fissure between amateur, grassroots and professional rugby began to widen into the chasm it is today.

George Gregan passes

George Gregan playing for the Wallabies in 2000 (AAP photo Dean Lewins)

Are we to believe that it is only in retirement, after Gregan and his colleagues have banked their riches, that they have had an epiphany and that money paid to professional players should instead be directed to the grassroots?

We will show in next week’s discussion how these are not two separate pools of money. Meanwhile, how about Phil Kearns citing in a television interview a reason for the putsch being that rugby’s TV ratings have fallen?

Hand on heart, Phil: have ratings fallen because of policies implemented by Raelene Castle or because rugby fans and viewers are heartily sick of your own banal, biased and inaccurate commentary?

With Castle removed, attention has now swung to changing the governance structure of Australian rugby to make the Rugby Australia board more accountable and fit for purpose.

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It is already well documented that the previous foray into rugby administration by Nick Farr-Jones, who has emerged as the dominant figure in the captain’s group, ended after he was found to have loaned $56,000 from a fund set up for Indigenous education to an ex-teammate, Jim Williams.

Another signatory, Simon Poidevin, only two weeks ago had an order restored by Australia’s corporate regulator ASIC banning him from providing financial services for a period of five years.

It would seem that while the credibility of Rugby Australia’s board is at stake, the credibility of its accusers on matters of corporate governance is of no import.

It was only as recently as 2012, when concerns over how to most appropriately administer a contemporary and professional national sports organisation and weariness over continual parochial infighting and disproportionate representation and influence on the board by the New South Wales and Queensland unions, led to constitutional change that facilitated a new governance structure.

What was gained on one hand was lost on another. The change failed to adequately address the linear relationship between the then ARU and the states, didn’t provide for clear pathways and linkages between the amateur and professional games, left the state unions feeling emasculated, and frustrated the central administration, who became an easy target for criticism over grassroots engagement, for which they had no control over implementation, given it was a state responsibility

Note that the respective chairmen of the NSW Rugby Union and Queensland Rugby Union at the time, who presided over this change, were Nick Farr-Jones and Rod McCall. Both signatories to the captain’s letter, now painting themselves as white knights, here to save Australian rugby from a governance structure they themselves saw in.

Not content with the recent renewal of the board – McLean is the only member who predates 2017, and he is due to step down in July – the captains group has proposed the formation of a new body, a 13-person ‘Australian Rugby Review Board’ that, according to Poidevin, “Will not answer to Rugby Australia, but will answer to all of Australian rugby”.

It is not clear how such a board will effectively operate in parallel with the existing board, although on the evidence of their knifing of Castle and running their campaign through a conflicted media organisation, Poidevin’s calls for “unity” and that “the new board will create trust within the rugby community” seem, at this stage, to be a stretch.

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Tevita Kuridrani fends off Beauden Barrett

(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

A means to an end? Perhaps, but people will need to be convinced that the group’s motivation is not simply to renew the board with their own appointments to pursue an agenda that is yet to be articulated. That would represent a takeover and carries significant transactional costs in terms of loss of goodwill.

To cast a further shadow over the group’s motives, it is also worth noting that a number of grievances have already been addressed.

Board renewal, the retirement of the divisive Cameron Clyne, the break-up of Super Rugby, a seat at the table for player representatives, repair of the relationship with the Force/Western Australia, improved engagement with community rugby across Australia, a seat at the interim board chairman’s desk – these are already in the throes of being ticked off or have already been ticked off.

The pandemic has fortuitously landed New Zealand in the lap of Australian rugby. While New Zealand Rugby will continue to respect and maintain their bond with South Africa, there is growing acceptance across the Tasman that, due to circumstances, this relationship is transforming into more of a ‘historic’ rather than functional phase.

New Zealand’s administrators have long looked on at Australian rugby’s vicious infighting and inability to get its act together with bewilderment. To hitch their own livelihood to such a wagon is not something they relish or would normally have a bar of.

These are, however, far from normal times. Almost certainly, no matter who is running Australian rugby, the next few months will see plans firmed up for a new competition built around the trans-Tasman franchises. Watch also for a rapid coming together with some or all of Global Rapid Rugby and, travel permitting, the re-inclusion of Japan.

And despite today’s weak financial position, a substantial drop in player salaries, the Lions tour of 2025 and likely World Cup hosting in 2027 are all financial rocks on which to build a sustainable future upon.

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The role of the players in all of this is intriguing. Rugby Union Players Association CEO Justin Harrison previously enjoyed a good relationship with Castle, yet prolonging a salary renegotiation that was only ever going to end one way, and backgrounding against her to provide further fuel for News Corp attacks seemed counterintuitive.

What is little known is that board members and senior Rugby Australia staff encouraged Castle to stand players down as she did other employees and as happened to players in the UK. Determined to treat the players as fairly as the situation allowed, her decision to engage the players instead worked against her and resulted in an outcome where, according to Harrison, the players would now be focused fully on bringing overall reform.

“RUPA believes in the need for transformation. This process has enabled a greater understanding of the need for root and branch reform of the game.”

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This from a group that hasn’t won the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 and has performed poorly in Super Rugby over recent seasons. Is not the best thing the players can do to effect transformation in Australian rugby to “fully focus” on putting some wins on the board and stay out of a fight that isn’t theirs?

What then of Castle’s legacy? All of the three major crises to mark her tenure – Israel Folau, Michael Cheika and COVID-19 – were not of her making. She also suffered fallout from the Force’s exclusion from Super Rugby despite it predating her.

Positions around Folau are entrenched. But it’s hard not to contrast Folau after his first troublesome post agreeing not to do it again, hugging Castle and promising that if he ever again hurt the game, he would walk away, with her at the first sign that the board would struggle to function effectively with her at the helm actually doing so.

Castle was popular within Rugby Australia and respected by many in the rugby community as a consultative and tireless worker for the game. She restored dialogue with Western Australia to the point where the Force are happily re-engaged and ready to participate in a domestic competition as soon as the situation allows.

Her efforts to retain the support of Qantas through the Folau saga and to obtain funding recommitment through the COVID-19 crisis can now be seen in the light of the AFL’s massive financial exposure to and reliance upon Virgin Airlines.

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

For the first time there is alignment through the high-performance programs at each professional franchise, and significant strides have been made with the retention of junior talent, the introduction and alignment of junior programs and pathways and the growth of women’s rugby.

While there are some among the change agents who are unhappy with the appointment of Dave Rennie – and for this reason the position of Scott Johnson cannot now be assured – it was a move met with approval and anticipation by most in the rugby community.

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Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. When the pandemic hit Castle was around one week away from delivering a signed deal with Optus and Ten for the new broadcasting rights cycle – a package that included a free-to-air component – at a figure said to be well in excess of what Foxtel had originally offered.

It is fair to say that had this occurred, while the volume of the News Corp media attacks against her would have reached fever pitch, their effectiveness would have been neutered to the point she would still be in her job.

Rather than show anger or distress at her shabby treatment, Castle is gutted because she won’t be able to finish what she had started.

If we are looking for negatives, Castle’s relationship-driven, inclusive approach too often left her open to attack from both sides of an argument. This happened with Cheika – pilloried for not sacking him but also for not supporting him – and also with the players, where she was simultaneously seen as weak for not standing them down and difficult to deal with in the negotiation.

It is also fair to say that the skills which made her a popular manager in-house were not necessarily those that make for an effective CEO, particularly in such a rough-and-tumble arena. A consultative all-rounder, she did not bring a particular skill set to the role, such as finance or an existing network of commercial supporters and benefactors.

Her most crucial weakness, however – that she was not of rugby stock of Sydney’s eastern suburbs and lower north shore – reflects far less on her than it does on her detractors.

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Whatever the wash-up, the hurt felt today by many and the hypocrisy attached to Gregan saying, “We want to work collaboratively” and Poidevin’s comments about trust, it will be necessary for all fans and stakeholders in Australian rugby to dust themselves off – yet again – and try to find a common purpose behind which to unite.

Time and again rugby people in Australia have shown that they are incapable of coming together to sort out differences in a constructive way. Which is essentially what New Zealand rugby did after their 2007 World Cup elimination.

Given the state of Australian politics, it should come as no surprise. Seven changes of Prime Minister in 11 years speaks to both a Machiavellian tendency to assume power through the back door and how our media are more interested in fanning the flames of crisis than allowing clear air for problems to be worked through without undue pressure being applied and angles being played.

Note how the captains letter was released in the same week NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was also hounded out of his job and calls grew for Cricket Australia CEO Kevin Roberts to resign. Tearing people down is the Australian way.

It is thus fair to ask: when is Australia going to mature and allow people do their jobs and not have them harried or tossed out for a decision or two that ill-informed stakeholders or a section of media might not like?

Perhaps when there is an answer to that question Australian rugby may have one of the solutions required to move the game forward.