The anti-gay views of star player Israel Folau may be her biggest headache but they are far from the only problem facing Raelene Castle in her first months as Australia’s rugby chief.
Poor performances, fan disenchantment and financial woes are also major concerns for the former New Zealand netball head, who is tasked with rescuing a sport in crisis.
Castle, 47, was parachuted in late last year, becoming the world’s first female national rugby chief, when Bill Pulver quit in the fallout of Western Force’s contentious axing from Super Rugby.
It was always a tough assignment for the New Zealander, heading up a sport whose popularity lags Aussie Rules, rugby league and cricket in Australia and which reported a Au$3.8 million ($2.9 million) operating deficit last year.
The 2017 season proved a disaster, with Australian teams losing all 26 of their games to New Zealand opponents against the backdrop of the drawn-out and damaging culling of the Force. TV ratings and crowds plunged.
Cutting Australian Super Rugby teams from five to four, as part of a move to slim the unwieldly, globe-spanning competition from 18 to 15 sides, was supposed to improve their overall strength.
But little has changed with all-conquering New Zealand still dominating, racking up a 39-0 Super Rugby record against Australian teams which stretches back to 2016. On Saturday, the Queensland Reds suffered a stunning 63-28 loss to Japanese minnows the Sunwolves, who ended a run of nine straight defeats.
Two-time world champions Australia, meanwhile, have slipped to fourth in the world rankings while the Force, backed by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, have begun competing in the breakaway World Series Rugby.
– ‘Religious lunatic’ –
At the same time, the devoutly religious Folau, regarded as Australia’s biggest star, has dropped a public relations hand grenade by unrepentantly posting on social media that gay people are destined for hell.
Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has blasted the divisive fullback as a “religious lunatic”, while Australian greats George Gregan and Tim Horan have both urged him to keep his views to himself.
“As soon as you bring it on the social media platform, it becomes a huge, huge point of discussion about the game, not necessarily for the right reasons and not representative of the people in the game of rugby,” Gregan said.
Castle has called the Folau issue the toughest challenge of her career, as she attempts to balance the rights of gay people against his freedom of speech.
As the controversy festers, Castle is also acutely aware that Australian rugby needs an urgent improvement.
“It can be better and it has to be better because the reality of the history of this sport in this country is that’s not acceptable and it doesn’t deliver you the fans the satisfaction and the commercial outcomes you’re looking for,” she said.
She insists that the slimmed-down Super Rugby format has seen improved TV audiences and better performances by Australian teams, although the failure to beat New Zealand opposition is “incredibly difficult to watch”.
“The hope that when you buy a ticket and sit down you believe your team can win — that’s the competition model that is hugely important and what we’re striving for,” said Castle.
– ‘Survival of the game’ –
However, Australia’s manifold problems have prompted plenty of doom and gloom among media about the state of the game and its flagging fortunes.
Leading the charge has been former Wallabies coach, and now prominent radio personality, Alan Jones, who accuses the current Rugby Australia board of having no vision.
“Sadly, the road back is going to be long and torturous,” he wrote in a column for The Australian newspaper on Friday. “We are now talking about the very survival of the game.”
“Sack a few of the useless, underemployed 140-odd people at head office in order to find the money. Parents will love it,” added Jones.
“Demand that all professional players offer their time free to help out.
“Once upon a time, when we were top of the world, the international players returned to their clubs and fertilised the emerging rugby talent. It doesn’t happen now.”
Castle has admitted the structure of Super Rugby is still not right, a point tacitly conceded by governing body SANZAAR which is now examining long-term options up to 2030.
Castle also said a plan was being devised to stop outstanding young players being poached by cashed-up rugby league clubs, a tactic widely seen as contributing to the decline of the 15-man game.
“(We need to) ensure that we back ourselves to secure that talent to contract it and grow and develop it,” said Castle.
“Being a Wallaby, playing internationally, going to a World Cup; those are things perhaps the other codes can’t discuss. (We are) looking to see if it’s something we can implement next year.”