While this period of time over Christmas is traditionally supposed to be the ‘off-season’, the turn of events over the last few weeks has made this period so interesting that we’ve been semi-considering getting the news boys back out or doing new podcasts.
Rugby is in a very weird place right now, with the beginning of the Rennie era upon us, a board clean out on the cards, a critical new TV deal being negotiated, and players being signed up for long-term contracts left, right and centre.
With all of this change comes the latest ringing out of demands from the likes of the media, shock jocks who shall remain unnamed, and rusted-on members of the general rugby public for a clean out of Rugby Australia. However, this time, the demands looked a lot more serious, with John O’Neill potentially looking for a tilt at the Chairman role, Phil Kearns potentially wanting to have a crack at the Chief Executive role, and the likes of David Leckie and Ben Fordham demanding the resignation of Raelene Castle. So strong were the demands, that Rugby Australia came out and said explicitly that Raelene won’t be going anywhere, and even then people were still murmuring of change occurring.
A lot of this we covered in Hugh’s excellent article from earlier in the week, which I highly recommend you read before continuing any further.
The whole nature from the Sydney boys club demanding more power and control over the game’s administration is something that isn’t entirely new, as anyone who loves and follows the game outside of Sydney will tell you. Additionally, with so many powerful people in the media on their side (effectively creating a narrative of disunity around the game that can only be solved if these men are appointed), it only adds to the perception that everything to do with rugby in Australia is going down the toilet. You could play bingo with these guys as to the same buzzword things they say, over and over.
Frankly, it’s not a constructive nor positive discussion, and it certainly won’t create any sense of unity or direction around to fix the legitimate problems of the game in Australia. And this leads to the main point of this article as a follow-up to Hughs: the entire narrative around Raelene Castle as CEO.
From the moment she took office in December 2017, Raelene has been a lightening rod for criticism from rugby circles everywhere. Some people have a go at her for her time at the Bulldogs. Some people have a go at her because she is an “outsider” to the game of rugby here in Australia, and not being part of Sydney boys club. LOTs of people have a go at her for the whole circumstance around Israel Folau. And then there are some people who have a go at her for much nastier reasons, which are frankly disgusting.
There are a LOT of criticisms you can level at Rugby Australia. Mismanagement of the game has been something that has reared it’s ugly head a lot within the last ten-fifteen years. A lot of that lack of direction, ironically, can be laid at the foot of many of Raelene’s predecessors, a couple of which, as mentioned, now want to come back into the fold. Sounds like a good solution, right? They sure know how to manage the game well, right? Disunity within the game is especially rife, with organisations like the SRU running pretty much independently of the governing body, and being the first to throw their toys out of the cot whenever RA does something not aligned with their agendas.
Raelene puts herself out there a lot, much more than her predecessors ever did. She’s at most conferences, she engages with people on Twitter, and people within the general rugby public know who she is. No surprises, she gets a decent chunk of the fury from people who want to level their anger for the issues of the game. But, here’s a fun question: aside from Cameron Clyne and Raelene Castle, who else can you name on the Rugby Australia board? (Don’t look at their website, that’s cheating).
If you can’t name many, that says a lot about her approach, as well as the approach of previous members of the board. For the legitimate criticisms of Rugby Australia not being invested in the game and not being present, why do we then level our criticism at someone who actually starts to do that? That’s not a failing of Raelene, that’s a failing of the general public. I was indifferent when Raelene was appointed, but increasingly I’ve been impressed with her ability to get things done at Rugby Australia. Keep in mind, it’s an organisation with a previous history of mismanagement.
Throughout my time looking at rugby, the one thing I’ve really learnt is that patience is key. When a team selects a coach, for example, you need to allow at least 1-2 seasons before they fully realise their vision for their team. First season, they’ve often got a squad that is majority-selected by the previous coach. It takes time for the new coach to craft his or her vision for the team. The same can be said for competitions like the NRC, or setting up new Super Rugby teams. You do that, not for today, but for five, ten, fifteen years down the track.
Raelene has been in this job for just under two years, inheriting a coach she didn’t select and a board who was responsible for doing such wonderful things as cutting one of the most promising sides in Aussie rugby in the Western Force, and slashing funding to clubland. It was always going to be an uphill battle for her. And, considering she’s been spending most of her time (with one exception), trying to put out fires the previous administration created, what can you actually pin on her?
All things considered, she’s had some victories over her tenure. Firstly, getting on the front foot with her NZ counterpart Steve Tew to show interest in the forthcoming Global Rapid Rugby competition was a major win in terms of beginning to mend fences with those in the west, even if RA is currently unable to provide more substantive support until the new TV deal is settled. She did such a good job, she was praised by Twiggy for being someone who is dragging ‘the rest of the board into the next century.’
She has built on the positive growth of the Women’s Game with the launching of the Super W, the creation of back-to-back Bledisloe tests, and to begin paying women who play for the Wallaroos. Oh, and did we mention she brought one of the most in-demand coaches in the world in Dave Rennie to the Wallabies coaching role, and apparently had been discussing the role with him for months? She convinced him over a four hour lunch to not go back home to New Zealand, but to come to Australia instead. That says a lot. That says she has a clear vision for the Wallabies, with Rennie and Scott Johnson in mind.
One of Rennie’s comments about Raelene was about her passion to see new talent come through. Right now, there is a lot of talent in Aussie rugby. There is a clear agenda to get players into long term contracts, not to mention there is something clicking at the lower levels with the connections between clubland colts and the Junior Wallabies program, given the success of that team over the last 18 months, which included a World Championship final berth. You need a coach and a system that can nurture that talent, not rob it of opportunities to shine.
But then we have the elephant in the room, being the whole Israel Folau debacle. Frankly, I would have hated to have been in her position, and while many have criticised her for some of her decisions, and some of those criticisms are legitimate, at least there is an understanding as to why RA took the decisions they did. She gave him a chance when he first messed up in 2018, and then when he did it again (and didn’t contact RA for over 24 hours after his controversial post), she made it clear those comments had no place in Aussie rugby.
While much legitimate criticism has been levelled at her for settling, we know Rugby Australia don’t have much money, and wanted this resolved quickly. Really, settling was the best case scenario when it comes to the governing body’s survival, even if it sucks that Folau gets off and sticking to their values wasn’t pursued further. No matter what she would’ve done, as Hugh said, it was an utter shit sandwich and there was no right answer. She was going to be damned if she pulled him up (with arguments of free speech) and she was going to be damned if she didn’t.
If we removed her now after only two years, she would have barely had the chance to make any impact on the game or instil any change. Whoever her replacement would be would likely have a different vision themselves that would be drastic from what Raelene has been trying to do for the last few years, and low and behold, we’re back at square one. Disunity, disorganisation, and more of the same.
The last key point to make of this, is that if you, dear reader, are going to judge Raelene Castle, do it from now. Right now. She has many challenges ahead of her, the first of which is the not-so-small task of sorting out the next TV agreement for the whole code. She has proven herself in these two years to have plenty of capability as a CEO who can get stuff done, and that is something that should be commended. She is now in a position to shape the game more significantly, and what she does now is on her own merits. She has a coach she selected, she’ll have a new board, she has laid groundwork for change.
That doesn’t mean we let her off, quite the opposite. She calls the shots, and whether those changes succeed or not is on her. The next 12-18 months are going to be critical. Only then, can we really say if she is the right person to lead rugby in Australia.