This past week will be one remembered in the history Australian rugby as one of its most bruising, yet not a ball has been kicked, a whistle blown or a hand shaken.
In fact, the Australian sporting public witnessed the once silent, and some never silent, protagonists in Australian rugby’s ‘Cold War’ put more than shots across each other’s bows.
Shots were fired, shots were landed and the former CEO of Rugby Australia Raelene Castle has gone down with her ship.
What was at stake? The prize each faction sought is not to plunder the practically empty treasure chest of Australian rugby but the power to reform and refill it.
So, why could Castle no longer be part of that struggle? Why did she no longer enjoy the support of her faction?
It is because at the time she became employed Rugby Australia in 2017, her days were already numbered as she had inherited a code that had multiple issues of significant proportion – none of which were of her own doing.
In saying that, she was never the right person for the job given the task that lay ahead.
Before the overly or even mildly woke spit out their herbal tea or avocado on toast in protest, thinking this is an attack on Castle because she is a woman, button-up hippie, it is not.
You see, this week has been a long time coming for the game of rugby in Australia, and sadly for Castle she just happened to be carrying the can when these days of reckoning occurred.
Did she contribute to her own demise? I believe she did.
However, as interim Rugby Australia chairman Paul McLean suggested during the week, ‘dark forces’ have been at work.
It’s unclear what Paul means, but how rugby has been collectively administered in this country since the game went professional at the end of 1995 also has its part to play.
When the guns lay silent at the end of the 1995 rugby wars, peace was declared, and News Limited paid the New Zealand, South African and Australia rugby unions $550 million for the right to broadcast provincial and test rugby for 15 years.
SANZAR was born and along with it came the Tri-Nations and Super 12 competitions that it would administer.
It was party time in downtown ‘Rugbyville’ and it was good. For a period of time.
Move forward 15 years to 2011 and Australian rugby was hardly in rude health, but it was holding its own.
The glory years of 1998-2002 were a speck in the rear vision mirror in the limousine travelling along a road to that would eventually intersect with Castle on April 23, 2020.
But for context, a brief snap-shot of history;
In 1996, the then Australian Rugby Union divested itself of the National Coaching Committee that was established in 1975.
This committee had been pivotal in developing how Australian rugby was to be coached and played from the grassroots up, not from the Wallabies down.
Australian rugby subsequently enjoyed stunning success between 1975 to 1996, including victories over a legendary Welsh side and the All Blacks, with Bledisloe Cups won at home and in New Zealand.
That period also included Australia’s only Grand Slam in 1984, their first-ever World Cup success in 1991 and victory over the returning Springboks in 1992.
Furthermore, those golden Wallabies of 1998-2002, the nation’s greatest era, all were nurtured as youth under the such coaching programs.
By 2005-06, the Wallabies’ ability to scrum had deteriorated or simply failed to keep pace with their competitors, and rugby league wingers were examples of player development de-jour.
In 2008, Robbie Deans, a five-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders, was appointed to the Wallabies head coaching role after he failed to secure the same position with the All Blacks.
The Australian Rugby Union had settled for a man who had put Australian rugby second.
He replaced John Connolly, himself a successful Queensland coach who had risen through the club ranks but was not afforded a second opportunity after the Wallabies bowed out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final after narrowly losing to England.
Connolly was not handed the latitude of Sir Graham Henry, who was retained by the New Zealand Rugby Union after the All Blacks also exited the 2007 tournament after a quarter-final defeat to France.
During the Deans era, the Wallabies performed admirably, but Australian rugby never truly harnessed the abilities of the ‘three amigos’ – Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor – as an attacking force.
All were errant individuals at times who were either not properly managed by Australian rugby or curtailed by what appeared to be an absence of a cogent ‘team-first’ culture.
Had any of them seen the inside of a colts or premier grade shed before being ushered into the professional game? Did it all come too quickly for them?
Although there were moments of brilliance, the amigos played like rock stars but without a number one hit to back up the swagger.
A review into the governance of the game, and how board membership was obtained, changed in 2012.
Candidates were now vetted by a nominations committee as opposed to being placed there by a representative union.
By 2013, 15 years had passed since the first sale of the broadcast rights and Super 12 rugby had grown to become Super Rugby, yet the party was coming to end as money was getting tighter.
The windfall of the 2013 British Lions series was gladly received into the coffers and that was about the only real success Australian rugby could boast from that series.
The Wallabies were deservedly beaten. Daniel Craig shouted champagne at the Opera House and Deans’ tenure as Wallabies coach came to an end.
John O’Neill had also finished his second tenure with Australian Rugby and was replaced by Bill Pulver.
Enter Ewen McKenzie, regrettably exit Ewen McKenzie.
Along came Michael Cheika as the Wallabies’ ‘White Knight’ in 2014.
Bill Pulver finished as CEO three years later, while Cheika showed signs of being more like the ‘Black Knight’ from the famed classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and so arrived Castle as Pulver’s replacement.
Upon commencement as CEO of Rugby Australia, Castle inherited a sport with straining revenue.
A sport whose revenue streams were tied to a tired, complex, unmeritorious, high-cost Super Rugby competition that was now being played by across multiple times zones and did not appear to be attracting new fans.
Even the test matches were losing credibility with South Africa at one stage fielding essentially a second XV to play Australia.
All at a time when rival domestic codes, the NRL and AFL, were on top of their game.
On the international stage, the Wallabies were performing inconsistently at best.
There was a dislocation between the community and the professional game, forcing the voices of discontent from within the rugby ranks as to ask how the game was being run, and rightfully so.
Those issues should lay fairly and squarely on the shoulders of past governance.
Was there any money left at the end of the initial 15-year broadcast deal? If so, how much?
Were there successful development systems in place at the end of that deal that ensured both player and coach development? Was there a meaningful connection between the community and the professional game?
If a board were looking for a CEO that could lead them through that fog, why did they believe Castle was the right person for the job?
It was not the case that Castle enjoyed stunning success in her previous role in at the NRL’s Bulldogs that demanded her recruitment to be the chief executive of Rugby Australia.
The two codes may be connected by DNA, but the skills and experience of running an NRL club, to no great success, did not align with the skills required to operate within global and domestic markets that Rugby Australia works in.
Those attributes also failed to fit the bill in bringing success to the Australian game that had been starved of such since the early 2000s.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 27, 2020
What was required was a person who not only possessed the requisite skillset and experience, but also a deep understanding of the game and how rugby in Australia had gone from producing sides that could not be bested by all comers to a side that deservedly hovers around sixth or seventh in the world rankings some 20-odd years later.
How could have Raelene Castle ever truly have grasped that?
Those from the rebel, or non-Rugby Australia faction that made clarion calls for a change to the way the game was being governed, have a fair point and have grounds to be aggrieved.
Those calling for Australia’s involvement in Super Rugby had to come to an end as it is a competition that the nation has served well, but is no longer serving its best interest despite the revenue it provided also have a fair point.
It is evident the model is not working and had not been working for some time, yet it is understood Rugby Australia was committed to it.
I understand there is now talk of a domestic tournament that operates within more viewer-friendly time zones for Australian fans, and even a global domestic finals series of sorts in time.
It is gobsmacking to have taken this long for such a model to be seriously considered.
It’s not as if it wasn’t on the table in 1995 during the rugby wars where the Kerry Packer-backed World Rugby Corporation wanted exactly that.
On her performance, Castle did her best under difficult circumstances, but clearly it was not good enough, otherwise the board would have not lost confidence in her.
Not the exact board that hired her, granted.
There is no definitive moment in the tenure of Castle that anyone could pinpoint as being a moment of administrative genius, but how the Scott Johnson-Dave Rennie combination works out for the Wallabies will be intriguing.
That, along with the alignment of the junior development systems, has been promising thus far.
What’s admirable about Castle is her tenacity, loyalty and her exhaustive efforts to put Australian rugby on a successful path.
Ultimately, though, she could not be the agent of change required to overcome issues inherited and issues faced during her tenure.
The handling of the TV rights issue is telling, as it is understood that Fox Sports, a broadcast partner since 1996, did not wish to deal with her.
Why? Was it because she took the rights to market after turning down their initial offer?
After all, Fox Sports had been a stakeholder and partner in rugby for so long, so why were the rights taken to market? Did Rugby Australia overestimate their worth and underestimate the value of the Fox Sports relationship?
Who is really going to pay top dollar to broadcast Australian rugby? It is not as if Australian Rugby is at the top of its game and the Wallabies, Super Rugby and NRC competitions are compelling TV viewing.
Nor is it the case that old media, such as free-to-air television, is flush with cash.
Did Fox Sports deliver a wakeup call that Rugby Australia could not see themselves? That the product of professional Australian rugby is not as valuable as Rugby Australia thought and Fox Sports are not prepared to pay premium prices for it?
Internet streaming is no doubt an option, but did potential suitors have the ability and the cash to deliver?
There was talk of a broadcast deal weeks away before the COVID-19 outbreak, but if that were the case, why did the board lose confidence? Rugby Australia have stumbled in their managing of the broadcast rights for 2021 and beyond.
Then there’s the issue of the 2019 balance sheet.
There are reports of last year’s loss being $9.4 million, but also reports of it being closer to $16 million. Can we get an audited answer?
Neither figure is encouraging and neither is the difference in-between, but should we not have a clear answer?
The fact that RUPA could not get to see the numbers for such a period did her no favours.
On the face of it, the handling of both of these issues are not favourable to Raelene Castle.
Moving forward Rugby Australia should seriously examine its governance model and welcome the notion of an independent review into such, as has been suggested by some of the protesting former Wallabies captains.
Mistakes have been made in administration by various boards in the Australian rugby sphere over several decades, and that is evident by where the game finds itself today.
On April 23, 2020, Raelene Castle and the effect of those collective mistakes intersected and the Australian sporting public witnessed the most recent administration of this game starting collapse as a result.
It’s pleasing to hear that there is a dialogue between Paul McLean and Nick Farr-Jones.
Stability will be found, healing will occur, but Australian rugby must take an honest look itself, reconnect with its people, reform and deliver from the grassroots to the international stage as one.
The game and its people deserve nothing less than that.
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