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Opinion

The siege on Castle in review

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Roar Rookie
13th May, 2020
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11333 Reads

It has been three weeks since Raelene Castle’s tenure as Rugby Australia CEO ended.

While she was in the role, Castle faced a remarkable amount of scrutiny. From day one, Castle was put under a microscope, initially for a range of superficial reasons: she is a woman, she is a Kiwi, she isn’t a member of traditional rugby union circles.

As she progressed in the role she had to deal with never-before-experienced challenges, drawing further criticism. Now having been forced from the role by rugby power players, many have jumped to her defence.

With every passing month at the helm, Castle became more and more polarising. With the onset of COVID-19, reporters and supporters were either in one of two camps: those on a witch hunt, seeking her resignation and laying the blame for the fall of Australian rugby at her feet, or her supporters, claiming that her task was impossible with the hangover of years of mismanagement being responsible, and that she was just about to start fresh with true autonomy.

There is no doubt the issues of Rugby Australia run much deeper than Raelene Castle’s leadership and her demise is a worrying example of these problems. Has Castle been nearly as bad as her critics will suggest? Not even close. Could she have done a better job? Without a doubt.

As always, reality lies somewhere in the middle. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, maybe now we can objectively take stock of her time in the role.

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A tough gig
I want to first address the argument that the RA CEO role is no plum job and Castle has been set up for failure by previous leadership and management.

There is absolutely no doubt this is a tough gig. It was plain and obvious that rugby has been poorly managed in Australia for some time, and turning it around would not be easy. However, accepting a tough job and collecting the large remuneration package to go along with it means you must be accountable in that role. The state of affairs at Rugby Australia was no secret to Castle when she took on the role, so let’s put that argument to rest right now.

Is it an impossible task? Maybe. Could anyone else have done better? Maybe, maybe not. All we could ask of Castle is that she does her best with the support of the people who hired her. To that end, I do believe Castle gave a good account of herself.

Former Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

But as a CEO, doing your best is far from enough, especially when you are getting paid so handsomely to deliver.

The Israel Folau situation
This episode was a debacle, there is no debating that. Where you stand with respect to the moral issues at play here is irrelevant in appraising Castle’s handling of the situation.

To assert this was anything other than gross mismanagement is entirely incorrect. Even assuming that removing Folau from the rugby ranks is the right decision, the process taken to get there has cost Rugby Australia literally untold millions.

First and foremost, RA made an enormous error when they re-signed Folau. Not the act of signing him itself, but they gave him the wrong contract. While re-signing a player who had recently made the comments he had might seem like a bad idea in hindsight, no one blinked twice at the time, such were his on-field abilities.

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No, the error was in submitting him the wrong contract – one without the unique social media and inclusivity clauses specifically drawn up for him. The ones designed to protect against exactly this situation given the incident from earlier 2018.

Instead he received the standard contract template, and once he had signed it he was under no obligation to sign a less favourable contract. This severely compromised RA in the handling of the case.

It should also be noted that a similar issue arose in former attack coach Stephen Larkham’s contract. How this happens twice in the contracts of high-profile employees is of great concern.

To compound matters, despite knowing that RA was not as tightly protected as it had wished, Castle overreacted, announcing her intention to terminate his contract only a day after his post. She did seek a dialogue, but gave up very quickly. It was clear that RA was only considering one course of action and that due process was not necessary.

Folau’s beliefs were not aligned with mainstream Australian values, and are in direct conflict with the values of major sponsors, and Castle saw no need for due diligence.

Israel Folau Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

This is not an argument defending Folau, but rather critiquing the process. Had Castle taken time to assess the situation and understand the consequences of her decisions she may have saved Australian rugby an enormous amount of money and heartache.

It seems unlikely that Folau would have ever played rugby in Australia again, but rather than the near immediate termination of his contract he could have been suspended indefinitely while proper process was undertaken. Castle’s actions eliminated any chance of an amicable resolution between the two parties.

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Of course, sponsorship and other financial pressures are touted as support, along with the loud moral issue, for her actions. But the cure should never be worse than the disease. Alternative solutions were never sought, and it is impossible to know what the cost of an alternative solution may have been.

At the end of the day the whole ordeal has cost RA millions they do not have. Maybe this outcome was inevitable, and that due process and level-headedness may not have saved RA any money, but that does not excuse the behaviour, nor the botched contract, which made this whole mess possibly forgivable.

It was at this stage Castle should have been stood down, although in practice this was impossible. To stand her down would have essentially been an admission of guilt by the RA board, which was entirely untenable during legal proceedings.

The relationship with Micheal Cheika
It was no secret to those involved that Castle had no functioning relationship with head coach Michael Cheika. It is obvious Cheika was a nightmare to work with, however as a CEO it is her job to make these relationships function, not the other way around.

Michael Cheika

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Again, maybe it was an impossible task, and Cheika was on a self-destructive streak and could not be saved from himself. While the CEO is responsible for leading the organisation to deliver a winning on-field product, at the end of the day the head coach is responsible for on-field performance.

Rather than supporting Cheika to coach in his style, she tried to change him, which was clearly never going to work. If she didn’t like his approach, then he needed to be moved on. Of course, they couldn’t move him on because they couldn’t afford to.

Was Castle wrong in disagreeing with Cheika’s approach? Probably not. The on-field results had been steadily getting worse. Cheika responded in an incredibly immature way and made her life much more difficult than it needed to be, but Castle failed to understand the man she was responsible for and was completely inept in getting any success out of him.

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Cheika is not without blame but it is hard to imagine the relationship being managed any more poorly than it was and for the relationship to burn to the ground the way it did reflects poorly on both of them, and undoubtedly damaged Australian rugby.

Hiring David Rennie
I am in favour of the appointment of new head coach David Rennie, and Castle has done a good job establishing a new coaching structure that can be successful for Australia. But again, due processes were lacking.

Castle’s preference for Rennie was leaked well before the World Cup and the culmination of Cheika’s tenure, which alone is an issue. But what was worse were rumours that an agreement in principle had already been reached and that no other candidates would be sought.

Appointing a national team head coach is not a decision to be taken lightly and even if you are set on a particular coach, RA has to follow best practice and dot its Is and cross its Ts. Corner-cutting appears to be a cultural trait for RA and Castle and the ends do not justify the means.

That said, 2020 seemed like it would bring a fresh start for the Wallabies. The previous playing generation were largely moving on with their coach. While untested in the Test arena, Rennie brings a lot of winning to the national set-up, and was to be supported by a strong team of assistants and administrators.

Dave Rennie

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There was reason for optimism. However, offering speculation as to what Rennie might do with a new generation of Wallabies as evidence of Castle’s success is a weak argument. She should be applauded for assembling a strong coaching and management staff, as well as building a sense of hope.

The TV deal
This was shaping up to be a big win for Castle. And at this point it is important to consider that not everyone can do everything. In fact, very few can.

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While Castle may have had some weaknesses, from the outside looking in, her broad vision and strategy for rugby seems very astute. Rather than taking the easy option and accepting the standard deal from Foxtel, Castle sought a better future for rugby. The broadcast rights were to her not simply a financial windfall but a critical instrument in growing the game.

Seeking a more modern arrangement that included streaming and free-to-air was without a doubt the way forward for rugby, which desperately needs more than what past Foxtel arrangements have offered.

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While Castle should be commended for this, it is to an extent the bare minimum you would expect of a competent CEO. That said, she did not back down and has weathered a very targeted propaganda campaign by News Corp and Fox designed to diminish the value of rugby’s rights, taking aim at the game and personally attacking her, and she has done so with integrity. Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic she might have already secured a deal that saved her tenure.

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The COVID-19 pandemic
It is completely unreasonable to expect Castle to have foreseen and prepared for the impact of COVID-19. The dire situation facing rugby right now is the convergence of a global disaster and years of poor financial management. It is important to be conscious of the fact that this shoestring budget approach is not unique to rugby and is commonplace across sport in Australia, which is another issue altogether.

Should Castle have even known this was coming from the day she was appointed there is simply no way she could have prepared RA for this event. In the early days of the crisis, Castle seemed to be handling the situation well enough. However, she did make one major error.

As a leader Castle needs to set the right example and asking the players to take a larger pay cut than herself was poor judgement, especially when the majority of players are not on nearly the same money. Yes, she accepted a 50 per cent pay cut, forgoing around $7500 a week, but she is still earning $7500 a week. The players on the other hand have agreed to an average pay cut of 60 per cent. When you have many players earning less than $100,000, that represents a significant adjustment to their finances.

Leaders get paid more because they take on more responsibility. This also means they should be the first ones to step up and take the hit during hard times. I don’t think it would have taken economists or actuaries to know that this crisis was going to hit Australian rugby hard, and an excellent example of leadership would have been for Castle to take a larger pay cut earlier. Earning $100,000 during a global economic crisis is still a luxury.

Raelene Castle speaks to the media

(Hanna Lassen/Getty Images)

Rugby Australia can’t get out of its own way.

The ultimate resignation of Castle is a near perfect example of what is wrong with Rugby Australia. Now was not the time to part ways with the CEO. COVID-19 was not her doing, and despite the many hurdles she had stumbled over, she was finally settling into the role and that the hangover left by previous administrations was dissipating.

Cheika was gone and she had a coach she could work with, she was closing in on revitalised broadcast arrangements and under-20s success was flowing into Super Rugby. To see her forced out of the office just as she was going to execute on her strategy isn’t logical.

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Sure, there could be any number of mitigating factors brought on by COVID-19 that change the outlook and needs of RA, and maybe she isn’t the one to deliver for the sport at this time, but that is not what has been portrayed publicly. She is not responsible for the years of mismanagement former captains have shamelessly laid at her feet, and reactive action in response to this crisis is the epitome of what is wrong with the game.

Castle should have stood down after the Folau incident, but given the board stood by her, why give up now?

RA finds itself in this situation as a consequence of a number of short-sighted decisions. And we are victims of it again now. To add insult to injury, the letter of former Wallabies captains calling for her to stand aside was despicable behaviour from a group who consider themselves leaders in the game. This all care and no responsibility approach is toxic and reeks of arrogance and egotism. It is telling John Eales was not among the signatories.

Castle had her flaws and certainly missed the mark on more than a few occasions, but she was never dealt a winning hand. The trouble is she was also not a very good poker player. She inherited a difficult coach, but mismanaged him. Her best player brought the game into disrepute and she dropped the ball.

But it is conceivable that her labours were about to bear fruit as the game transitioned from one era to the next. It is near impossible for a CEO to effect change overnight. When she was hired there was a vision in place, and she has been supported in developing that vision at every juncture since. It makes no sense to abandon that vision now.

The silver lining for RA is that this crisis presents an opportunity for a clean slate and a complete restructuring of the sport in Australia, and potentially a chance to build the foundations for sustainable success and growth.

Why Castle cannot be part of that, however, makes no sense – especially given they have stood by her when she has made mistakes, and now in a time she has not, they sent her packing.