“A footy boss first” was the headline we published back in December 2017 to mark Raelene Castle’s appointment as CEO of Rugby Australia, the first woman to lead one of Australia’s top four football codes.
But just over two years later, Castle has stood down from the role. The pressure came from multiple directions, including an open letter from former Wallabies captains that received frontpage coverage for their claims that the sport had “lost its way”. She’s also long been the recipient of fierce criticism from Alan Jones.
When Castle saw that she’d lost the confidence of the board on Thursday night, she was left with little choice, telling 7.30 in a statement that she loves the game at every level, but would be standing down.
“I made it clear to the board that I would stand up and take the flak and do everything possible to serve everyone’s best interests.”
The statement shows no bitterness and no ego, rather a willingness to do whatever is needed to help the sport more on.
“In the last couple of hours, it has been made clear to me that the board believes my no longer being the CEO would help give them the clear air they believe they need.
“The game is bigger than any one individual — so this evening I told the chair [Paul McLean] that I would resign from the role.”
Castle thanked the broader rugby community for their “enormous support”, has promised to do whatever is needed to do an orderly handover and wished the code and everyone who loves rugby “nothing but the best.”
Sports commentators have shared divided views on Castle’s demise, saying some criticism has been fair but that she’s also faced “unrelenting attacks” and some “plain spiteful” attacks. Others have called on the board to be held accountable.
Sportswriter Richard Hinds wrote on Twitter that while he doesn’t know whether Castle was a good CEO or not, he’s “100% certain women in power are still held to a much higher account than men. That’s not an excuse for her performance. It’s just where we’re at.”
Former Wallabies player Peter FitzSimons told ABC today that Castle should not have gone the way she did. “I don’t say that she took over the titanic, but she took over a sport that’s been in sad decline for twenty years.”
New Zealand Rugby released statement acknowledging Castle’s work, describing her “commitment, hard work and dedication.”
Castle had taken on the role during a tumultuous period for the organisation. It had been plagued by financial and boys club issues, as Bianca Hartge-Hazelman wrote at the time. Today on the ROAR Daniel Jeffrey writes that the game is now in better shape than before Castle arrived. “Castle was not the problem with rugby in this country, nor is she the cause of the issues the game faces right now.”
The coronavirus pandemic which has put all sport on hold — and contributed to the fall of NRL CEO Todd Greenberg — has no doubt also played a role in Castle’s demise here, putting broadcast negotiations on hold and the future of the game in jeopardy. The code was already facing financial difficulties, along with a disappointing performance at the World Cup, but the current crisis makes finding a way out especially challenging.
But there was also the long legal row with Israel Folau last year which saw Castle gaining a lot of enemies for her committed response to his behaviour.
Castle was the former CEO of NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs and chief of New Zealand Netball. She took over from Bill Pulver in taking the Rugby Australia role.
Asked last night by Leigh Sales, just prior to her resignation, if she thought some of the criticism was occurring because she was an outsider — “a Kiwi and a woman running a sport whose biggest names are middle-aged Australian blokes” — Castle responded: “It’s a sport that attracts passionate responses from people … There will be lots of people who think there are things I could have done better. They tell me that. They write that on social media.
“You form a very thick hide when you do jobs like this, but ultimately you’ve got to believe that you’re doing the right thing for the sport.”