SO, after “taking a breather” (because what’s another few weeks and she obviously needed a break after resigning from the Bulldogs in May), Raelene Castle has been tasked with reviving rugby in Australia.
Four months after Bill Pulver announced he would be stepping down, Rugby Australia unveiled the New Zealander as the organisation’s first ever female chief executive.
The Wagga Wagga-born Castle edged out former Wallabies captain Phil Kearns for the RA position.
Here are four areas that Castle must tackle if the sport is to thrive.
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‘Piss it up against the wall’: Regaining the grassroots’ faith
Animosity towards Rugby Australia’s administration has arguably never been more fierce.
Ever since Pulver told Sydney’s clubs he had tightened the purse strings because they would “piss it up against the wall,” plus the predictable outcry, RA (formerly the Australian Rugby Union) faced an uphill battle overturning that image.
The messy circumstances surrounding the Force’s culling meant RA has lost its national footprint and credibility too.
LISTEN: Why Raelene Castle is the right candidate – The Splash pod
As RA repeatedly told us throughout 2017, the return to four Super Rugby franchises was inevitable.
But the lack of transparency and the time it took to come to a conclusion was unacceptablem and RA should have foreseen the legal challenges lying in wait.
Repairing those fractured relationships, both in Western Australia and in club land, is essential for Castle to succeed.
Just as important is a change in perception.
For too long the cliche, right or wrong, of Australian rugby being the exclusive domain of private schools, has existed.
RA has smashed the gender glass ceiling with Castle’s appointment and now they must continue to push into new frontiers by spreading rugby’s reach in public schools, non-traditional rugby areas and among women.
An olive branch to ‘Twiggy Forrest’
Part of RA’s rationale in returning to four Super Rugby franchises was because the coffers had run dry.
They were losing some $7 million dollars a year by keeping all five franchises afloat and poor results only exacerbated those financial woes.
Enter billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest, who in July promised to save the Force and said they had his financial backing.
But according to Pulver and RA chairman Cameron Clyne, it was too little too late.
The Force were toast and the Rebels were spared.
Since then Forrest has attempted to start the Indo Pacific Rugby Championship, with the Force at the epicentre.
But negotiations with RA, who must sign off on the competition, seem to have stalled.
Castle revealed in her first press conference that she would meet with Forrest.
“Certainly I will. I’m sure that’s something that Cameron and I will do once I start in January.”
Australian rugby simply can’t turn away from such riches.
How much is too much? Super Rugby salary cap dramas
The culling of the Force meant an entire squad needed to be scattered throughout the remaining four Super Rugby sides.
The Rebels have gone on a signing bonanza with many of the former Force players following their coach Dave Wessels to Melbourne.
Others, like back-rower Isi Naisarani, have joined the Brumbies, while the Reds and Waratahs were too advanced in their plans for 2018 to capitalise on the talent available.
Last month RA announced they were waiving the salary cap for 2018 to deal with the overflow of players.
Ironically, some of the money RA had hoped to save from discontinuing the Force will now be sucked up in the short-term by the elevated salary cap.
But major issues will arise in 2019 when the regular $5 million Super Rugby cap — minus Wallabies top-up payments — returns.
Jobs will undoubtedly be lost, which makes negotiations with Forrest all the more important to keep the best rugby talent in Australia.
Immediate success is the key to long-term sustainability
Undoubtedly, Australian rugby needs instant success on the field.
Australia’s Super Rugby sides were pathetic in 2017, losing all 26 games against New Zealand opposition.
It wasn’t that long ago though that the Reds (2011) and Waratahs (2014) won the damn thing.
Consistency is the key though, with both championship-winning sides nose diving soon after.
At this stage New Zealand rugby holds all the power.
Their Super Rugby sides have won the past three competitions, 15 consecutive Bledisloe Cups and are the back-to-back world champions.
And in 2020, SANZAAR’s current broadcast rights deal will end.
At this stage, South Africa are considering packing their bags and leaving Super Rugby for the European competitions which sit in the same time zone.
That would leave Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina to work out the new broadcast rights deal.
If Australia don’t start winning, then it will be a hard sell in negotiations to walk away from the table with a significant slice of the financial pie.
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew — who knows Castle well from her previous role as Kiwi netball supremo — has poured cold water on the idea of a trans-Tasman club competition because he thinks it will hurt the All Blacks.
It’s up to Castle to help change that line of thinking.
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