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Raelene Castle Faces Big Challenges in Rugby

If you need someone to do a tough job, hand it to them.

Raelene Castle, the former boss of Netball New Zealand, assumes the top job at Rugby Australia, breaking fresh ground as the organisation’s first female chief executive, and the first woman to head up an Australian major football code.

It comes almost a year to the day after former Australian netball supremo Kate Palmer was tossed the keys of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), in the wake of disappointment at Rio and struggling with a toxic brawl between the ASC and Australian Olympic chieftains.

Castle’s been hailed as offering rugby union a fresh face, new perspective but most importantly, a steady hand in what could be described as the toughest sporting administrative challenge in Australia.

Interestingly, being a woman seems the last of these challenges. She put paid to that with her well-respected reign as chief executive of the NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs.

In fact, her gender will act as an emblem for change, to wrench the image of Rugby Australia away from the blazered male private school types.

But her to-do list is long.

Heal — and then and sell — Super Rugby

Super Rugby will need to become relevant again to Australian audiences.

The slow car-crash that was the mishandling of the Super Rugby reform will go down as a textbook case of how not to do sports admin.

For all the merits in overhauling a complicated format, the toxic and prolonged mess overshadowed every good news story about rugby, created powerful enemies and pushed Bill Pulver onto his own sword.

The signs are promising that Rugby Australia has been puffing on a peace pipe with Andrew Forrest and will work to make his proposed Indo Pacific Rugby Championship align with the Super Rugby product.

The appointment of Castle — a cleanskin, faction-free — should help lower the temperature.

But the challenge Castle inherits of relaunching the brand is matched by the problem with the Australian product itself.

The fact that no Australian franchise could score a win over any of the New Zealand franchises poisoned Australian fan engagement, sapped audiences and attendances, and dragged down the confidence of the Wallabies, still currently the game’s premium product.

Hopefully peace in the boardroom will translate to better support for the teams, and help the Wallabies rebuild without distraction.

Improve Australian rugby at grassroots level

Club rugby is been struggling for a number of years in Australia during the professional era.

The fact is rugby union’s appeal is still not broad enough. It is still regarded as being rooted in its private-school base, losing young boys and girls to league and AFL.

Rugby Australia has just released statistics showing “school rugby participation has boomed across Australia, showing a 112 per cent increase in just 24 months”.

But it also has acknowledged it needs to arrest a decline in club 15-a-side participation.

Club rugby is struggling. Rugby Australia says millions will flow to the grassroots from the decision to axe the Force. Castle will need to show clubs the money to justify the pain.

The fact that Australia cannot support five Super Rugby teams shows the challenges of an overcrowded market. Sevens rugby is the shining light — rugby union administrators are rightly proud of its growing base — but it will need to reinvest in club rugby to build strength.

And here again, it is about image. Castle’s appointment offers a unique chance to put a face to this brand transformation.

Increase the focus on the women’s game

The national women's rugby sevens squad is one of the game's few shining lights in Australia.

It will not be Castle’s gender, but sheer market potential that drives an increased focus on women and their game.

The juggernaut that has seen AFL, netball and cricket seize audiences, cachet and talent pools threatens to leave rugby behind, despite having a gold-medalling Olympic sevens team.

Rugby league recently brought forward its plans to launch its own women’s competition to get a piece of the action.

Though Rugby Australia dipped its toe in the water this year with the national Uni 7s tournament, it knows there is more potential besides. Castle is sure to oversee an expansion.

She will need to address pay too. Pulver promised last year equity between the women and men in the sevens. A new collective bargaining agreement deal next year ought to provide that opportunity.

It is a long to-do list. Castle is said to be ambitious. She will need to be.

Having said that, rugby is near rock-bottom. Anything she achieves will be a bonus.

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