Under siege for several months, Raelene Castle tendered her resignation to Rugby Australia just three days after the publication of a letter co-authored by 11 unhappy former Wallabies captains calling for leadership change. The letter was the last straw for Castle, who had lost the confidence and support of major stakeholders in the game, including her own board.
But how much of Castle’s downfall was her own fault? How much was the product of a dysfunctional governance structure, which has never really made a full transition from the amateur era to the professional game?
When the former Canterbury Bulldogs CEO took the reins at RA three years ago she inherited a mess. Australia’s professional teams – the Wallabies and the four Super Rugby sides – could barely win a game between them. Television ratings and crowds were falling and there were simmering tensions over the axing of the Western Force.
On top of it all RA was heading towards the end of a lucrative broadcasting deal with long-time partner Fox Sports, worth $57m a year. Castle’s task was to fix Australian rugby’s deep-seated problems and then re-negotiate an even richer broadcasting deal. In retrospect, she never had a chance. Or did she?
RA is the central power of Australian rugby, but its ability to create a cohesive and collaborative national administration is impeded by the game’s federal model. Castle, a Kiwi, was creeping towards a more centralised system, similar to the one in New Zealand, but this was unpopular, particularly in the heartland states of NSW and Queensland.
Instead of unifying the code, Australia’s disaffected Super Rugby teams discussed amongst themselves the possibility of breaking away from RA and creating their own competition and negotiating their own broadcast deal. Maybe it was just all talk, but it reflected a growing sense of discontent with head-quarters at Moore Park.
Stakeholders found fault with Castle’s handling of major issues such as the Israel Folau saga and the unsatisfactory performance of the Wallabies at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. A reported $9.4m loss did not engender confidence.
Even when the coronavirus pandemic shut down rugby last month there seemed to be little sympathy for Castle in certain circles. It was clear that she would have to deliver a bumper broadcast deal to secure her position. In a supreme irony, Castle’s greatest achievement as RA CEO also marked the beginning of the end of her reign.
It would hardly have surprised Fox Sports executives when Castle rejected their initial low offer of $20m a year for the broadcast rights, but what Castle did next would have stunned them. For the first time, Castle took the broadcast rights to open tender, hoping to create competitive tension between Fox Sports and another bidder, expected to be Optus.
Castle’s ballsy move prompted Fox Sports to make a much improved revised offer, but Castle did not seem to fully appreciate the magnitude of her victory and rejected it. It is understood Fox Sports executives breathed a huge sigh of relief and then withdrew from the bidding process. The pressure on Castle has mounted ever since, reaching a breaking point with the captains’ call for change.
The RA board became increasingly uncertain Castle could deliver the outcomes the game needed to survive, especially in these challenging times. In her resignation statement Castle said it had been made clear to her that her departure would give the board the “clear air” they believed they needed.
It’s a thankless job, the RA CEO. Just ask John O’Neill, Gary Flowers, Bill Pulver and now Castle. It was a pity Castle left before the new Wallabies coaching team of Dave Rennie, Scott Wistemantel and Matt Taylor got to coach a game. If that team is successful, it will be Castle’s lasting legacy.
Who or what will replace Castle? There has been a lot of talk about reforming the governance system, but Australian rugby has more urgent matters to attend to, principally securing a new broadcast deal and resuming play once lockdown restrictions are eased.
It might take RA six months to find a new CEO. A few names that have been bandied around include Phil Kearns, David Gallop and Todd Greenberg.
RA chairman Paul McLean, who claimed Castle was the victim of “abhorrent bullying” by her critics, has taken over as executive chairman for the immediate future and the board will meet on Monday to discuss where the game goes next.
There has already been speculation recently-appointed board member Peter Wiggs will act as an interim CEO. The founder of Archer Capital and chairman of Supercars, Wiggs has the requisite business acumen to steer the game through the broadcast re-negotiations and resumption of play.
And after that? Perhaps Wiggs could be persuaded to take on the role of executive chairman permanently, becoming the Australian rugby equivalent of the NRL’s Peter V’landys. But unless there is meaningful reform of the way Australian rugby is governed and administered, any new leader is potentially setting himself – or herself – up as another fall guy for a broken system.