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The old boys’ brigade trying to topple Castle

The undermining of the Kiwi running Australian rugby is part of a much wider problem in the sport, a legacy of its privileged founders, writes Ashley Stanley

The rot at Rugby Australia runs deeper than Raelene Castle. 

When you clear out the breakdown, the pile of players who are not rolling away is the old boys' club. And everyone knows it. 

So why is there limited analysis about their part in the current state of play across the Tasman? What role have the exclusive group played in rugby’s dismal affairs and how do they continue to yield so much influence?

If you go up top to the video referee for a closer inspection, you will find New Zealander Castle is just another casualty, rather than the cause of the stench at Rugby Australia's Moore Park headquarters.

It's well known that rugby in Australia was suffering long before Castle, the former Netball New Zealand and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs CEO, took over the top spot in early 2018 from her predecessor Bill Pulver. 

The game was hemorrhaging at both the grassroots level and from the top, as seen in an outdated product that could not adapt to a changing audience, causing plummeting viewership numbers and eventually the culling of the Western Force franchise from Super Rugby - all under Pulver’s watch.

New ideas and change were needed. But Castle’s appointment still left a bitter aftertaste among the rugby fraternity.

Why?

Because Wallaby legend Phil Kearns was kept on the sideline by a woman who was not a part of the inner rugby circle.  

And before I lose half of the readers for playing the gender card instead of critiquing Castle’s performance to date - and don’t get me wrong, it’s been colourful and covered in the media extensively - let’s be honest and dig out the root cause of the decay, instead of shouting about the symptoms. 

You don’t have to be an analysis expert to know that Rugby Australia’s chief executive is being made an example of publicly by the elite and their media mogul supporters because she’s not one of them. That's a major factor Castle may have underestimated when she made history as the first woman to lead one of Australia’s major sporting codes two years ago. 

On appointment, Castle emphasised the need to judge her time in office on performance. And of course that should be considered for rugby’s head role.

But by saying that, she removed the underlying systemic design issues at play governing the sport and inadvertently framed her ascension up the sporting ladder to individual effort. This idea of meritocracy is dangerous at best.

Castle walked into a system that was built by old boys, to benefit them. No one else. And especially not women.

When rugby was introduced into Australia by Englishmen in the 1800s, strategic decisions were made by those same powerful people to determine what the code would look like.

Rugby soon became popular among the dominant social groups in New South Wales, which included affluent families, and the tone of the game was set from there. And it continues today.

The history and reasons how these decisions have shaped the game and the impact they've had on people is lost over time. But the structures born from those deliberate decisions remain and are entrenched as societal norms years after the original power players set them. 

It’s no wonder Castle is under siege. You can’t go up against over 150 years of history without being burned, even with the best of intentions.

Female rugby participation in Australia has seen double-digit growth under Raelene Castle's watch. Photo: Getty Images

Covid-19 is exposing the fundamental flaws in this current system and showing the massive disparities and growing inequities between the haves and have nots. 

As obvious as it has been for some, it is now an opportunity to re-imagine what the new norm can be; what system can be built to benefit more than the powerful pale males.

In New Zealand, quota directives have been one way to action systemic change. Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand introduced a minimum 40 percent gender balance quota on sport boards who receive more than $50,000, by the end of 2021. 

Without this top-down approach, people in power remain the gatekeepers of what is accepted and what is not. And if Castle’s case is anything to go by, there probably won’t be much support for people outside the old boys' network.

From a global rugby perspective, Argentinian great and current vice chairman of World Rugby, Agustín Pichot, is echoing the same sentiments. 

If elected as World Rugby’s chairman, he is advocating for change - a true democratic system overhaul where everyone benefits instead of a select wealthy few. 

Pichot says the "way we do rugby" needs to change, which includes looking at different options around investing in the growth of the women’s and sevens game.

As much as Castle has blundered decisions in RA’s boardroom, there have been some highlights in similar areas to those mentioned by Pichot. She's always known she needs to adjust and try new things to keep her code competitive. 

The positive changes during her stint include introducing equal pay for women’s sevens players, a double-digit growth in female participation since starting the Super W - the women’s rugby competition - shortly after her arrival in 2018, and a fund dedicated to keeping young talent in the code.

The experienced sport administrator knows the women’s game can provide different opportunities. She also knew the Super W was a minimum requirement to stay in touch with the other major codes, especially after Australian Football introduced the AFLW competition in 2017 and rugby league launched the NRLW in 2018.

Up until now, the limited appetite for women in sport has not been by accident. It stems from the same idea of the rot at RA being beyond Castle.

The real reason is because we’re conditioned to think that way from a young age. Constant messages are framed to support the notion that girls don't play sports. They play with dolls, stay at home and are weak. Boys are strong, they play rugby, and can lead sporting organisations. 

This toxic way of thinking starts before we’re even born in the form of 'gender reveal' parties thrown by expectant parents. Blue for boys, pink for girls. And the association for each sex progresses at every stage of life.

All the microaggressions add up over time, and that’s how the boys' club stays intact. And society remains the same.

These norms hurt everyone. Girls and boys are limited in what they can pursue from an impressionable age. And this thinking carries on throughout their lives and careers. 

If you can’t see the connection, it’s like our lockdown. People assume the individual efforts they make today are isolated events that don’t affect anyone else, now and in the future. 

But if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are more interconnected than we would like to believe. 

So now more than ever is the right time to encourage different ways of thinking and being. Maybe then we won't have an old boys' club baying for blood in the future. 


 

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