Raelene Castle interview: "They have an open invitation to come in and share ideas"

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle says she will "keep fighting" to make sure all parts of rugby in the country survive the COVID-19 crisis.

The organisation reached agreement with Australia's players this week on a six-month pay deal while three-quarters of the organisation's administrative staff have been stood down until June 30.

RUGBY.com.au sat down with Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle to discuss plans for the resumption of all forms of rugby, the financial state of the organisation and her response to a letter from 11 former Wallabies captains for the Rugby Australia leadership to "stand aside" on Tuesday.

It's been over a month now since Super Rugby has been played.What plans does Rugby Australia have in place for the resumption of Super Rugby and what time frames are we looking at for that resumption?

 

think the overlay we have with Super Rugby that makes it more challenging for us than perhaps some of the other codes is the cross-border element. So, we need to be thinking about what does a domestic competition look like, also recognising that we would still like to have some international element to it as well. We are working closely with the Australian government to work out and the state governments around borders opening up so that we understand. We're thinking that July/August is probably about the right time for a competition to start and we've certainly done modelling around the different competitions on a domestic Super Rugby competition which is a five week, seven week, 12 week type competition, hopefully a five or six team home and away competition that can give some real substance to finishing off what we started at the beginning of the year and really get the players back on the field so that they can engage in something that's meaningful from a fan point of view but also from a player point of view and then because of the international piece, knowing that we've got Test matches that it looks unlikely now that we're going to be able to deliver in July, we're thinking about what the back end could look like and certainly New Zealand is a target for us, playing the All Blacks. We've got three Bledisloe Cups planned this year, we'd like to think we could continue to deliver those and they're probably looking at later into that October or November timeframe.

 

Do you see the possibility of a standalone Bledisloe series as the most likely international option this year?

A standalone Bledisloe Cup series is being tabled amid COVID-19 discussions. Photo: Getty ImagesThat's certainly one of the options we're working on. So everyone understands, we worked on about 26 different models that we need to think about and consider all the different elements and when can we start and when can't we and how might it work through but we think with the information we're getting so far what's likely to happen first is domestic will open up so we'll be able to have certainty to play a domestic Super Rugby competition and then we're most likely to open up Trans-Tasman borders first because both our governments have taken quite a similar approach to this and really got this under control so testing athletes, making sure they're clean or have no COVID symptoms before they go into those environments seems to be most likely and that's, as a base case, that's what we're working towards.

 

It's not just Super Rugby, not just Wallabies that are affected by this. A few Wallaroos Tests also scheduled for July and August, what's the status of those?

Wallaroos are challenging at the moment and it's the overlay of having very professional athletes in the men's versus semi-professional athletes in the women's and asking them to maintain a level of engagement that the women don't have the luxury of that the men have. Those are still in discussion. If we can find a way, we're certainly working with World Rugby, they recognise that as we work towards building a Wallaroos program that's capable for those girls to get the best possible preparation into a World Cup in 2021 that they need some Test content to make sure they're playing at that level. We are working with World Rugby, they recognise also that it's important that the girls and the athletes get that opportunity and so it's really with the support and integration of World Rugby we'd hope to get some Test matches whether it's at the end of this year or into early next year, it's still in discussion.

And the Sevens program as well, the Olympics postponed until 2021. What does that program look like as well?

The Australian Sevens program could be decentralised in the future. Photo: Getty ImagesWe are in discussions with the Sevens programs around what the reality is. There is some rescheduled tournaments that are looking to be later in the year but they are still uncertain around international travel. We're dealing with a really uncertain time as we all know. To be able to say, 'Absolutely, I know we'll be able to travel to that', the conversations with the Sevens is we currently have a centralised program that made sense when we knew exactly when the formats were going to be. There'll be conversations around maybe a decentralised program so that athletes can live in their home environments, might be a more sensible approach to it. Those are the conversations that Scott Johnson's leading with our Sevens teams to make sure we find a mechanism that allows them to keep training to be in a position to move into an HSBC Sevens World Series when that starts again but also thinking about preparing for the Olympics in July next year.

 

And on a community level, the last date (pencilled in) for resumption was June 1st. Where is that at now, what time frame is for club rugby to come back into action?

I think that's even more complex because different states are going to open up their borders and make decisions differently. So as opposed to saying community rugby might start on X date, James Selby who leads our community rugby team is working with each of the states to actually make sure they have an understanding of what their local government and what their state governments are doing around opening up engagement for the states that have a lot less cases they probably can get on line more and start to run their competitions earlier than the ones that might be more challenged. It is really going to be on a case by case basis. We're certainly hoping we can get a level of community rugby up and going. We think it's an important part of bringing the community back together at a holistic level and you overlay the rugby community bringing those people back together and then the whole health and wellness piece which is important because we haven't all had that opportunity because we've been locked inside and while we've been able to go for one walk a day it's not quite the same as being able to run around with your mates and the footy and the social interaction that comes with that. It is an important part of the work that we're doing with the government. They recognise throught COMPPS (Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports) group which is all the professional sports are working together to engage with government so that we can understand what their desires are to get community sport up and running again and equally we can be saying, ' Yes we want  this, guys, this is how you can help us get those competitions back up and running again. So, the short answer to your question is that will start again but it will be varied across the state.

 

There's always a lot of discussion around financial impacts at the national level but for those community clubs and a lot of teams who are battling through this process, what is Rugby Australia doing to try and support those clubs?

A return date for community rugby could be determined by individual states. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThe community team have been working a lot with those clubs themselves, directly into those clubs through their member unions to help them with packages around understanding their finances, working through our cash flow to see what that looks like, making sure they've got a one stop shop for all the grants, location, the tax breaks, the Job Keeper, all of those things that the government's announced so that's easy access and they understand from a sporting club point of view what they can have access too. We've tried to make that piece as easy for them as possible. Working through what a return to play could look like, can they run smaller competitions having draws in place that might be one round or half a round or short rounds of finals. Really working with them to deliver what's relevant and appropriate in their community. It's been trying to support them as much as possible through what is equally - everybody's lost revenue, everyone's challenged and not been able to have the things they previously thought they were going to have, how can we help them through that process?

A big ticket item was completed with the player pay deal finally completed. How significant is that for Rugby Australia and for the financial survival of the game in the country?

It was very significant. The first five weeks of this COVID process from a Rugby Australia point of view was reducing cost as much as possible to get to a baseline where we knew we could survive through to the end of September and that was the real focus. We made the very challenging decision around staff and stood staff as did us and the Super Rugby clubs and then the player piece was the piece that needed to be finished. We really appreciate the support that the players have come to to show their support in working with Rugby Australia and working with the Super teams through this very difficult time and obviously our Sevens program as well. It was a complex negotiation because of the different parts and the different challenges that each of these groups faces Wallabies versus Super teams versus Sevens but we got there and I certainly appreciate in rugby the whole rugby community appreciates the fact the players came to the party. That now gives us certainty to allow us to move into the next phase which is about thinking about what an ideal structure looks like for a whole of game solution for rugby in this time, where it will look different, it is going to look different than what it did previously so the work that Rugby Australia is doing about bringing that whole of game review together, wants to consult widely, make sure that people will use this opportunity to bring their views to the table and we can think about designing a structure that can take us through this challenging time and then have us ready to go out the other side.

You mentioned that deal allows you to do a lot of other things. I guess that includes beginning of the World Rugby loan. What is the next step in that process in terms of the financial relief they can provide?

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont. Photo :Getty ImagesWorld Rugby have identified a pot of about 75 million pounds that they are going to use to loan to the countries, the tier one nations who have faced challenges during this time. There's hundreds of millions of dollars of losses forecast across those 10 nations because of the lost opportunity to play rugby. They recognise they've got a role to step in and try and help support us. Rugby Australia's obviously critical to that process. We've had really positive conversations. They now understand the situation that Rugby Australia's in, they've seen those financials. We will work through with them to try and secure that in the next couple of weeks. They recognise they've got to try and deliver some short-term certainty and some longer-term certainty and that's the options that we're working with World Rugby on.

What amount of support do you think they can provide, are there numbers that they've been able to give you?

I think the pot they've announced is 75 million pound or 100 mil USD so that obviously needs to support all 10 of those nations. Some nations need it immediately and in a shorter time frame because the Northern Hemisphere played their Six Nations and managed to have those big crowds and get some money in the door. Maybe they will be facing some different challenges, so timing of the different nations is different. So we'll be working through with World Rugby. They haven't identified a specific number but that's the conversations that we're going to be working on. There's a pot of 75 million pounds that needs to be divided between that group of countries, the tier one 10 countries and we'll be working through what Rugby Australia's allocation to that will be.

With that process started, the player deal completed now, are you guys confident that you are able to complete the annual report and present fully audited books by the end of April?

Rugby Australia is yet to provide its audited financial reports for 2019 to ASIC. Photo: Getty ImagesThat's not a straightforward answer. Yes, we're very confident in the numbers presented to the AGM as to where the unaudited accounts were but that number's the number we...but we need to work through with the requirements of the auditor to make sure we can guarantee Rugby Australia is a going concern through the next 12 month period from that AGM, we are forecasting what we know to be true around the things I talked about earlier on today, which is a Super Rugby competition and some Test matches, into some Super Rugby at the start of next year, when we can build that into a forecast for the next 12 months, then that's when we'll be able to have those audited accounts signed, or those accounts signed off by the auditor and that's what we're working towards and in the stages of finalising at the moment.

After that AGM, you spoke about that worst case scenario of potential loss of $120 million in revenue. If that worst case scenario does come to play, are you confident Rugby Australia will avoid going into administration and will be financially secure?

You never say never in these things, because if we got a second wave of COVID and we couldn't play rugby for the rest of the year or into next year then obivously we'd be having conversations. With the information that we've got at hand at the moment with the positivity that's coming out of the government and the feedback and the stopping of the virus and the opening up borders, us being able to play rugby at the back end of the year, yes we're confident with the plans we've put in place and the cost-cutting we've made and the very tough decisions that we've made that we will be in a position to be able to work our way conservatively through this and then come out in a positive place as we move forward.

 

It's a challenging time in a lot of aspects, an unprecedented time for sport and a lot of criticism has been levelled at Rugby Australia and at the leadership of Rugby Australia, particularly this week, A letter was signed by 11 former Wallabies captains calling for some big changes. What was your reaction to that letter and what was your response?

 

George Smith and George Gregan are among the captains to sign the letter. Photo: Getty ImagesThose men have served their country and great Wallaby captains and they have absolutely an open invitation to come into the Rugby Australia board, share their concerns and share some of the ideas and solutions that they have. I've met with nearly all of the people on that list over my time, 2 1/2 years as CEO of Rugby Australia and the one thing I've said to them is, "As a Wallaby, you have a right to ring me at any stage and give me any feedback specifically about things that you're not happy with or ideas you've got of how to change the game and that remains an open invitation as it has. What I'll say is there's not a sport in the world that's not facing really difficult times at the moment and we have to think differently and we have to go about our work differently and we have to be open-minded to new things and new change. If people have got those views, we want them to come to the table, we want them to share them with Rugby Australia and we want to work on them together to try and make sure that rugby survives into a better place in the future.

 

Given that's been the message you say you've given to Wallabies and former Wallabies, were you surprised that they took this action?

I mean I think it's difficult. These time are unprecedented, people are uncertain about what it means for the future, there is some really difficult conversations that come about. I reiterate what Paul said yesterday, we have that invitation, we've offered them that invitation and we hope that they come in and share those views with the Rugby Australia board.

Looking forward over the next few months, how determined are you to be the person that leads Rugby Australia through this challenging time and out of it ultimately?

I've made that commitment to the staff and the state unions that I work with on a daily basis, all of those people that I'm in conversation with on a weekly basis that I'm going to fight as hard for them as I can to make sure not only Rugby Australia gets through this but the states and territories get through it, the member unions and also into community rugby. I've made that commitment, we've had to make some really difficult decisions which have not been easy and we're going to have to continue to make difficult decisions. But what I'm hoping is we can overlay that with some positive change that gives us certainty as we move out of the back end of this totally unprecedented time and we're absolutely looking to innovate and think about things differently.