Not long after the axing of the Western Force, Rugby Australia was made a once-in-a-lifetime offer by West Australian philanthropist Andrew Forrest to reconsider the inclusion of the Perth franchise in its elite international competition.
Rugby rejected that offer leaving Perth with little choice but to launch its own competition.Later that year, on 13 December 2017, Raelene Castle was appointed CEO, succeeding Bill Pulver.
We must all be judged on our results, especially CEOs – and sporting CEOs at that! We too have to perform under bright lights, on centre stage, with a running commentary and a live scoreboard.
Regrettably, during her rather brief 28-month tenure Castle did not trouble the scorers too often.
Success hides all ills, failure welcomes scrutiny
On field, the national team straddled mediocrity, hovering in seventh position – a far cry from past glories.
The Castle-Cheika soap-opera did not help.
A CEO and head coach must trust each other. A working relationship and a semblance of mutual respect would be ideal.
Instead, the incessant innuendo and instability between the two, culminating in a spectacular row at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo at the World Cup proved disastrous for all parties.
Especially for the well-intentioned team, who’s quarter-final knock-out showed glimpses of potential. One can only imagine what a little more cohesion and support could have done.
Ironically, it was in Perth, Western Australia that Rugby and Castle, witnessed rare success – a dead-cat bounce in August last year, where the Wallabies stunned the All Blacks for only the fourth time this decade.
Also, remarkable was the record crowd of 61,241 that attended – another anomaly for the code.
This has been in contrast to the rest of the country where the sport has been languishing both on and off the field.
Top Down Management
A fundamental problem with the management of Rugby in Australia has been the misguided view that the success of the national team would be the panacea for all its ails.
But you simply don’t build a successful sporting code from the top.
You do it from the bottom – from the grass roots.
Participation gives you the foundation from which to draw on for volunteers, viewers, sponsors, government support, pathways, professional athletes and eventually global peak performers.
Instead, community engagement numbers across the nation have been generally declining but for the recent interest in Rugby 7s and new ways of counting.
Rugby needs to first make the junior game safe enough for mums to allow their kids to participate (reduce head injuries) and sell better one of its greatest assets – the fact that almost any ‘body’ can play. Regardless of size, strength, height or speed – rugby is one of the most inclusive of games.
The sport need not look too far for a solution. RugbyRoos in WA has successfully trialled a traffic light system of Red, Yellow Green to manage physical contact and more importantly has proven how school and community engagement can lift participation rates dramatically.
Diversity, long overdue
Another key focus must be public schools.
Rugby Australia must recognise as soon as possible that the next wave of athletes is not going to be all white, elite, and from private schools.
This is a long over-due reality check.
Diversity was significantly wanting in Rugby – starting with its previous board and its power brokers.
You can’t run a code from the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney when the growth regions of your sport are elsewhere in the country and most likely to include first- or second-generation immigrants.
It is now an accepted fact that every successful team from semi-professional all the way to international representation has a significant cohort of ethnic Pacific-nations .
It is also common knowledge that, with few exceptions, almost all of them have traditional family values and strong Christian faith beliefs.
It’s a part of the fabric of the sport world-wide and the sooner administrators accept this, the better for everyone. Anyone who has attempted to organise a professional game involving players of Pacific origin on a Sunday will attest to this.
Yet, the disconnect between the Australian administration and one of its most important constituent groups was disastrously played out on the national and international stage with the Folau incident.
Putting aside the ethics and even aesthetics of the case, it showed a complete lack of understanding of context.
When you have a large proportion of your sport inherently religious all the way from the representative level to the grass roots you do not take the fight to them, you don’t do it in public and you do not make a scene.
The administration also misjudged the wider community’s attitudes on this as evidenced by their overwhelming financial support for the legal case against RA. Regardless of the noisy social media rhetoric, in the end, millions of dollars donated by the silent majority from around the nation went heads up against Castle and RA with little support, financial or otherwise, from the ‘influential rugby network’.
Those in the bubble consistently failed to step out and read the situation, thereby causing irreparable damage to the sport and the largest section of its participation and fan base, and even the undecided bystanders.
The ensuing fallout from the legal proceedings and the associated financial payout was a burden the sport could ill-afford.
Instead, we recommend Rugby Australia take a fresh approach to the Pacific. Show leadership in the region with regards to player development, training and sports science. There is also room for better medical support for managing matters such as spinal injuries and the like that are more common with the sport.
Most importantly, investment in basic athletic needs such as nutrition, education, facilities and new game intelligence.
A genuine engagement in rugby development pathways particularly in countries like Tonga, Samoa, even Fiji, would have the support of World Rugby and will have long-term benefits for Australia as the first port of call for those athletes who wish to ply their trade away from home – not just in our local competitions but also as future Wallabies.
Not so Super Rugby
In Super Rugby, the controversial excommunication of the Western Force proved a fantastic distraction from the endemic problems with the other franchises and the competition in general.
The spoils of an historic media rights deal now shared amongst fewer clubs in Australia did little to improve our standing in the competition.
Off field, corporate sponsorship, merchandise sales and membership numbers have been trending downwards.
Super Rugby match day attendances have reached such lows, a resumption of games amidst the Covid-19 pandemic would hardly concern health authorities.
Actual attendances were embarrassing in comparison to even the Shute Shield and NRC games.
In addition to poor management and marketing of the sport, the low proportion of time the ball is in play during the game has become a sore point. Together with the inefficient management of scrums and injury time-outs, the game presentation is dangerously in need of tweaking in order to keep existing fans and attract new ones.
Again, the peak body could do worse than watching a replay of World Series Rugby to see how an engaging and entertaining match day could give the game its much-needed boost.
Television viewership numbers have also been falling faster than any other peak sport in the country, pointing to an impending correction in media rights.
Regrettably, this too has been mishandled, with current and potential media partners treated with conceit.
…not unlike the multi-million dollar lifeline that came from the West.
It would be foolish and unfair to blame all of this on Castle. In my few encounters she seemed well-intentioned and collegiate. Depending on tenure, some RA board members must also bear responsibility for overseeing the decline, doing nothing about it – or both.
She may not have been the solution the sport so desperately needed, but she certainly was not the problem. There are many of those and unless there is transformational change, they are likely to be around for a while.
Nick Marvin served as CEO of Andrew Forrest’s inaugural Western Force and World Series Rugby. Prior to that, as managing director, he oversaw the turn-around of the Perth Wildcats and was founding chairman of the National Basketball League.