Raelene Castle has shot down reports of Rugby Australia paying Israel Folau $8 million as “wildly inaccurate” and said the apology issued was related to stress on the Folau family, not the decision to sack him.
Fronting media at Rugby Australia a day after a confidential settlement was struck with Folau over his $14 million unlawful dismissal case, Castle rejected suggestions Rugby Australia had “got it wrong” by settling and said she was not considering her position as chief executive.
While not willing to reveal the payout, Castle said the decision to settle with Folau was a commercial decision to give Rugby Australia “cost certainty” and the sum was less than what it would cost to push on and fight Folau in court.
The press conference also saw Castle:
* Reveal Rugby Australia has an insurance policy in place to cover an unspecified amount of the settlement;
* Defend her decision to re-sign Folau on a $5 million, four-year contract last year;
* Issue a “never say never” on Folau playing rugby in Australia again but qualify it by saying she assumed he would not sign a contract with the same Code of Conduct that saw him terminated in May;
* Re-assert Rugby Australia's decision to sack Folau was the right call, given inclusiveness is a core value of the game.
Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia and Rugby NSW in May after repeatedly posting anti-gay messages on social media but the ex-Wallaby claimed he was only expressing his religious beliefs, and he subsequently began legal action to be re-instated and be paid $14 million in damages.
After several official and unofficial mediation sessions, Folau and Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby settled out of court on “confidential terms” on Wednesday and a joint statement was issued with mutual apologies included.
Despite the startement saying the parties would not discuss the settlement, within hours Folau claimed in an online video he was “vindicated” by the settlement and the apology, and reports in the media on Thursday claimed Rugby Australia had paid him $8 million.
Castle tweeted on Thursday morning that the settlement remained confidential but the reported figures were “wildly inaccurate”, and after calling a press conference to respond, added it was ‘disappointing' to see the speculation emerge.
She declined to shed any light on the terms but said the decision to settle was a commercial decision, made in the best financial interests of rugby.
"What I can say is, in these types of disputes, what you do try and find a situation that gives Rugby Australia, some certainty, Castle said.
"This settlement gives us that and also ensured that we were in a situation where the cost was less than seeing a trial through to the end of February.
"The whole point of a confidential settlement document is that you don’t talk about the numbers and you don’t speculate on them, and you draw a line in the sand and you move on. Unfortunately because of what has happened this morning, we are here."
Asked why Rugby Australia had “backed down” after Castle said on Monday that believed in the legal and ethical strength of their case, Castle said: "We didn’t back down.
“We needed to give the game cost certainty. The feedback we were getting from our rugby community is they wanted this matter settled. They want to go into the new year knowing they can go in with a clean slate and start talking about rugby again, instead of talking about this case,” Castle said.
“These are ultimately commercial decisions. We had to make a decision that is right for rugby in this country. We made the right decision in calling out Israel on his posts, and on his inappropriate messaging.
"That remains the same. We stick to our values that inclusiveness is absolutely core to the key of rugby. Ultimately taking this conversation further into a court situation was not helping the game, so we made a decision that gave us cost certainty and put us in the best financial situation entering the new year in a positive way.”
Castle confirmed that Rugby Australia has insurance that will cover an undisclosed percentage of the Folau settlement.
"We do have an insurance policy in place, yes,” she said.
Asked how much of the payout it covered, Castle said: "I can’t discuss that.
Castle said Rugby Australia wouldn't have to make changes to its budget due to the settlement.
"That's the good thing about the settlement, it's put us in a place where we do have certainty and there won't be any money taken out of community rugby," she said.
Despite many in the community hoping the divisive Folau case would proceed to court, to further examine the hotly contested area of an employer’s rights and an employee’s freedom of expression, particularly as it relates to religion, the settlement means this will not be that test case.
Rugby fans expressed relief the matter was resolved and would no longer suck oxygen from the game as it has done for almost two years.
But Folau and his backers still seized upon Rugby Australia including an apology to the Folau in the settlement statement as “vindication” of his position however.
Castle said there were mutual apologies, and the RugbyAU apology was not for sacking Folau, however, only for the stress of the last eight months.
"If you look at the statement that was drafted yesterday, and there was a lot of work went into that statement by both parties, there was an apology both ways,” Castle said.
"That apology was both ways because this has been very stressful, it’s been a very hard time for the Folaus and it’s a very hard time for Rugby Australia.
"At the end of the day it was about that difficult time that Rugby Australia apologised for, but we stand by our decision that we have been through.”
Asked if Rugby Australia had “got it wrong”, Castle said: “We didn’t get it wrong.”
"At the end of the day we stood up for the values of Rugby Australia. The person that chose to breach the code of conduct was found guilty and his contract was ultimately terminated because of that. That stands up and continues to say ‘this is an inclusive sport’,” she said.
"Behaviour and commentary of this type is not acceptable in our sport and everybody in rugby needs to be included, regardless of what their background is."
Castle was asked if she would be stepping down from her position as CEO following the Folau settlement.
“No,” she replied.
"This is a commercial decision that we have made. Everyone (on the Rugby Australia board) is comfortable with that.”
Castle has been criticised for re-signing Folau to a four-year contract last year, particularly after he had posted a similar message warning gay people would go to hell earlier in 2018.
Included in that criticism is Castle and Rugby Australia belatedly trying - and failing - to get an additional social media clause inserted in his new contract.
Castle argues such a clause was deemed unneccesary given a Code of Conduct tribunal found the Code of Conduct in the standard player contract was sufficient.
Asked if she regretted signing Folau for four years given the warning signs, and what happened in 2019, Castle said: "Those things are really easy with hindsight.”
"I have been asked the question should you have not re-signed him?” Castle said.
"Can you imagine the furore if we hadn’t resigned him? There are lots of things that are really easy in hindsight about this. It has been really difficult for everybody involved. It has not been easy. But I keep re-iterating: the main reason we are here today is Rugby Australia stood up for its values, and it’s values are about inclusiveness and that remains the case exactly the same today.
"I am personally really sad that we have found ourselves in this situation. My belief was that we had agreement where we could both exist: Israel could continue to play football and he could continue to be a proud man of faith and Rugby Australia could live by its values.
"That was absolutely where we started this new contract and that’s the agreement I believed we had but ultimately that wasn’t the case.”
Castle said she was confident she remained the best person to lead Rugby Australia.
"I do because at the end of the day this has been very difficult, there's not a business leader that leads an organisation that I have spoken to that has looked at this situation and gone 'this is a very difficult thing’,” Castle said.
"They've gone out and reviewed their policies, they've gone out and debated it around their board tables and in their leadership groups; 'how would we cope if we had something like this happen to us?'. From the beginning people have looked at us to see how we've dealt with this and ultimately we've had extensive support form the rugby community and also from the wider business community."
The settlement saw Folau drop his demand to be re-instated but Rugby Australia had earlier responded to his statement of claim about his career being ended by saying he was still free to seek a future contract with a Super Rugby side.
Quizzed as to whether Folau would be welcome back, Castle skipped around the question about said it would be hard to see Folau agreeing to the conditions of a Rugby Australia contract given the events of 2019.
"At the end of hte day his contract has been terminated, I think it's clear to see our values are not aligned and the expectations that RA would have of Israel coming back into the sport would not be acceptable,” Castle said.
"Never say never, it would be crazy of me to say that. What I'm saying is that we've got a value disalignment and I don't believe he would sign under the current player contract, which means he'd be respectful of the social media rules."
Asked what she would say to her critics, Castle said: "I would say that we, at every stage, looked to try to defend the position of Rugby Australia and ensure that the very, very key value of inclusiveness stood up.
Welcome to the team, #CoachRennie! @RugbyAU has today announced the appointment of Dave Rennie as Head Coach of the @Qantas #Wallabies.— Wallabies (@wallabies) November 19, 2019
MEDIA: https://t.co/UtF1VwFpGt#GoldBlooded #TeamRugby pic.twitter.com/4ASmukqqF5
"That's what we did, that's what we continue to do, and we continue to make RA and rugby a sport that everyone can be welcome in in this country,” she added.
"There's been lots of really positive things happening in rugby but trying to shout through to get those positive messages forward when we've been dealing with this case has been really difficult. We are pleased that we are going to start the year in a positive vein, with the Sydney Sevens, then we lead into Super Rugby.
"We've anounced Dave Rennie as a new Wallabies coach, that's incredibly exciting for Wallaby fans to be able to see a new coach take the lead. Those are the stories we want to be talking about."