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Rugby's 'No Blood, No Sympathy' Raelene Castle

It’s not often you become friends with someone’s parents before you do them, but that is what happened to me and the Chief Executive running Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle.

I met Marlene Castle – Raelene’s mother - several years ago while travelling through Europe.

Marlene is a diminutive woman, rather reserved yet incredibly stylish and we both share fond memories of traipsing through Split, Croatia, in a mad dash to find a local sports bar to watch an NRL Grand Final together.

While Marlene is somewhat older than me, we instantly hit it off, and it wasn’t long before I worked out that beneath her calming, warm presence and friendly smile was a steely resolve like few others and that this pocket rocket from New Zealand was a national champion at lawn bowls and Hall of Fame inductee.

A couple of years later, I met Raelene and was struck by not only a strong resemblance to her mother, but a similar inner resolute strength and fashionable style.

Raelene Castle. Photo: Getty

Less than a year at the helm of Rugby Australia and Raelene is now relying on that inner grit and determination to chart her success because her remit is enormous and she knows it.

Rugby - a once beloved national sport - has lost some of its historic glorious lustre.  It now flounders both domestically and internationally and is arguably at its lowest ebb in its once illustrious history.

Amidst a modern and highly competitive sporting landscape, club, school, state and national rugby are challenged like never before.  Impatient administrators and fans alike want answers and solutions and it’s up to Raelene to find them.

She is confident she’s up to the challenge.

“I did a lot of due diligence about where rugby was at in this country and where it was in the world and I decided it was a really good opportunity - it's got great bones,” Raelene said.

“Yes, we’ve got some challenges … all fans would like to see us perform better and more consistently and get back to the winning ways of the 90s”.

Historically rugby in Australia flourished with the benefit of historical Commonwealth connections and a blue blazer set of private school pathways.

But in a twenty-first-century sporting environment, that no longer cuts it. This sport, like all others, is now confronted with fierce competition for young athletic blood.

Proof of that is found in the recent participation figures from Australian Sports Commission.  They now measure 20 sports for girls, and boys - and they’re not all the same. So the number of sports Aussie kids want to play is extensive.

In the 1990s the Wallabies dominated World Cups and won Bledisloes.  Today, the All Blacks seem to own the trophy cabinet, and on the face of it, the Wallabies have few answers, with all eyes currently on the coach, Michael Cheika.

Fans and critics alike are impatient for results and another below-par performance in 2018 has Raelene’s vocal and influential detractors lining up and demanding instant results.

“I think at nine months in, it is a little early.  You have to say what you’re going to do and then deliver on them. If you haven’t done that within a reasonable timeframe, then I think you deserve the criticism,” Raelene said.

Castle speaks to media during the 2018 NRC Season Launch . Photo: Getty Images

Armed with a Commerce degree; experience in marketing and business, plus more than four years as the Chief Executive at the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs Rugby League club - and prior to that running Netball New Zealand - Raelene is a seasoned and proven sports administrator and doesn’t flinch at the enormity of the job ahead.

“They don’t call it general management for fun, they call it general management because that’s what it is.  So I have eight direct reports and have to have an understanding of high performance, community, finance, public relations, marketing, digital, legal, and HR.

“You’ve got to be able to have sensible, educated and informed conversations around all those different elements,” Raelene said.

Fixing Rugby won’t be easy but she is confident that if she can get rugby to think collectively, she and the sport are well on their way to success.

“They had every chair of the major states involved in my appointment process … so when they offered me the job, I had the full support of not only Rugby Australia Board, but also chairs and the boards of the four major states.

“So that gave me the kickstart to be able to start the conversations in a positive way as opposed to having to get appointed and then earn that engagement with them. It was a smart move from their perspective.”

The leadership reality for Rugby - a 120 million dollar business - is that like all federated sports it can’t make wholesale change without all the key stakeholders on the same page and agreeing, as one, to the path ahead.

Those who have worked with her have every confidence that she can deliver.

“Raelene is a doer. She gets things done. She is not afraid of hard work or of taking responsibility and ownership. Her greatest strengths are her work ethic, her integrity and her courage”, former Brisbane Broncos Chairman and now Executive Chairman of the Gold Coast Titans Dennis Watt said.

"In a robust environment, Raelene was fearless in expressing her views … not daunted by strong personalities. She is no shrinking violet”.

Raelene can’t afford to be but says she needs time to transform the sport.

“I’ve worked with board directors who say, just make it happen.  The reality is you can’t just make it happen, because you’ve got to encourage and cajole and convince - and that’s where building the trust and respect is critical.  Because once you’ve built that trust and respect, that’s when they’re more likely to accept change,”Castle said.

The modern business of sport is big business and to attract and secure sponsors, Rugby has to be able to demonstrate a confident stable structure with growth potential, reflected in a depth of talent and athlete pathways for the Wallabies to draw from.

A significant and early win for Raelene was securing the biggest name in the game, 29-year old Israel Folau for four years.  Folau is the first man to ever reach the top in the NRL, AFL and rugby, but was embroiled in arguably the most controversial saga in the history of Australian rugby in April.

Folau acknowledged the work Castle had done in her first year in the top job.

“I respect who she is, and she’s doing a really great job running the game so far,” Folau said.

Raelene adds, “I think we are in a consolidation and relaunch mode, to make sure that we really have really good structures, robust and world-class high-performance systems; integrating the role of grassroots - and our game is strong at all those levels”.

Israel Folau scores a try against England. Photo: AAP

That will allow us to deliver on that world stage across Wallabies, Wallaroos and our Men’s and Women’s 7s”.

It will be a seismic shift for some administrators – slow, methodical and arduous - and has to be collaborative, ie getting all the schools, clubs, regional and state organisations, in step to agree on a future model.

Critical to her success, Raelene hopes to have in place a united national position, with signed MOU’s, for a centralised high-performance program (Wallabies and Super Clubs) before the start of the next season.

An added and unexpected pressure point has come from the growth of the game amongst women.

A gold medal in Rio catapulted the sport nationally, arguably before it was ready.

“The launch of the women's game, and certainly winning the gold medal in Rio has meant our female numbers have just exploded, to the point where we have done it a little back to front, where we’ve performed at the high-performance level and now we have to try and backfill our pathway and our community game to make sure we have the structures to deal with all the young girls who want to play.  It’s a great problem to have by the way,” Raelene said.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika

Being the first woman to lead a major sport in Australia hasn’t been without its issues and predictable cheap shots, over her fashion sense and appearance, which is why she has been so open about her struggle with Alopecia Areata.

“I go through phases of my hair falling out and having to face being a female in an environment where you are judged on your appearance, and your look, and having to front that. I went public with that because it’s important to share that story. I don’t want people to think I have cancer or that the thought the job is too tough,” she said.

“So when you have those conversations, and they aren’t always easy things to do, but when you talk publicly about them, it builds a level of resilience, that makes ordinary things that happen in business not so insurmountable.

“You get perspective, and for me, that’s how I deal with it.  I don’t worry about things I can’t change, and I’ve got much more disciplined about that and if I find myself bashing my head against a brick wall, I don’t, I go round it.”

Raelene credits here mental toughness and resilience to her parents and her Kiwi upbringing and that’s understandable, given her mum is a champion athlete, and her father, Bruce Castle captained the ‘Kiwis’ – New Zealand Rugby League team -  in 1967.

A favourite Castle family motto while growing up says it all – “no blood, no sympathy”.

Dennis Watts believes Raelene is someone special.

“I don’t doubt that initially it is tougher for a woman leading a tier one sport in Australia, particularly in those traditional male-dominated sports … but increasingly I see all that changing – as leaders like Raelene stand their ground and show that grit, vision and a genuine feel for the respective sport - and its stakeholders - are not the preserve of one gender or another.”

In 2015 Raelene was recognised for her contribution to sport, netball in particular, with a New Zealand Order of Merit (NZOM) – and a Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader Award.  It happened while she was CEO of the Bulldogs, and in recognition, the kiwi members of the club performed a Haka for her at the ceremony.

Raelene reflects on our chat and its meaning and says, “It is a challenge, and I am someone who likes the challenge.

“You know when they finally put me in that box one day, I want them to say that I took the challenge head-on and made the most of it.”

Honestly, I have absolutely no doubt she will.