Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle confident she can make 'tough decisions'

Rugby Australia's long to-do list (3:29)

Greg Growden sits down with Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle to discuss the issues facing the game and why she's the right person to bring rugby back to where it belongs. (3:29)

Raelene Castle has a thick New Zealand twang, but her passport confirms she's Australian. Her favourite All Blacks players are Jonah Lomu, Michael Jones and Grant Fox, but Greg Cornelsen's historic four-try Test effort for the Wallabies at Eden Park in 1978 remains among her most vivid rugby memories.

She is a New Zealand sporting title holder, but her origins revolve around what was once a Riverina rugby league stronghold- Turvey Park in Wagga Wagga.

Despite living most of her life the other side of the Tasman, the new chief executive of Rugby Australia is not exactly a stranger to the demands of this difficult and unique footballing marketplace, having spent four contentious seasons with the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL club. She arrived at her new position in January with baggage, particularly concerns over the salary cap dramas she left behind at the Bulldogs, and has since walked into a stinging hive of rugby ferment.

Amidst complaints about an underperforming Rugby Australia board that oversaw a $(Aus)3.8m loss last year, a Wallabies world ranking slump, inability to win a June international series, fury over the axing of the Western Force and Australia's failure to beat their New Zealand Super Rugby counterparts for 32 games, Castle has been criticised for her soft approach towards Israel Folau's derogatory anti-gay social media comments. Then each week, former Wallaby coach Alan Jones has used his various media platforms to viciously attack Castle, repeatedly questioning whether she is capable of doing the job.

This is no easy gig- one that could easily see the meek flee from, especially as her divisive predecessor Bill Pulver left behind an enormous mess. However Castle is adamant she has the ability to guide Australian Rugby to a long awaited on and off field recovery.

During an extensive interview with ESPN, Castle explained her Australian origins, her struggles with alopecia, her hopes that a New Zealand centralised system is introduced, how Rugby Australia is working on a talent identification program to stop schoolboys heading elsewhere, how the Wallabies remain a viable marketing tool, the challenges in ensuring rugby remains a viable broadcasting attraction, and that the contentious Giteau Law for overseas players will remain.

As importantly Castle stresses that she wants to be "part of the group that brings the Bledisloe Cup back to Australia."

Castle, born in Wagga Wagga, hails from a rich sporting family. Her mother Marlene is one of New Zealand's best-known lawn bowlers, competing in four Commonwealth Games, while father Bruce was a New Zealand Kiwis Rugby League captain. (Raelene is also a top-level lawn bowler, winning the 2009 New Zealand mixed pairs title with Mike Kernaghan.) Bruce was captain-coach of the Turvey Park team when Raelene was born. After six months, the Castle's returned to Auckland. While a league clan, rugby was still a crucial part of their life. Each All Blacks Test, daughter would sit with her father to watch the team that provides their country's heartbeat.

During a period when Auckland was international rugby's strongest province, it was natural that the daughter would be attracted to Lomu, Fox, Jones, the Whetton and Brooke brothers. But the green and gold made an impression on a seven-year-old. Her earliest Wallabies memory is of Cornelsen scoring those four tries.

Considering what Castle has stumbled into at Rugby Australia, her first Wallaby taste was apt. The Cornelsen feat is a reminder of how Australian Rugby often excels in crisis. The Wallabies had lost the Test series, and in the lead-up to the third 1978 Auckland Test, Australia's coach Daryl Haberecht had suffered a heart attack. The players took over the running of the team and responded winning 30-16.

"That's the nature of Australia. Also, no-one expected the Wallabies to make the World Cup final in 2015. But for an injury and a concussion that final would have been closer. For the next World Cup, they know exactly know what they need to do, and just have to execute the final pieces of that game. We do need to win a World Cup. That's the expectation," Castle said.

It requires all Australian teams to pick up their act, and a dramatic improvement in the relationship between head office with provinces, club and junior levels. Many at the lower levels believe Rugby Australia has forgotten them.

"Australian Rugby needs to work more closely with its Super Rugby clubs, states and territories. We need to be a more welcoming and supportive organisation. We had an AGM this year, where we had one table and every CEO sat with the board and had dinner. The one table concept was not lost on people. We're all facing challenges, all of which is everyone's making. There's not one body in particular that has caused all those challenges- so we have to work together to determine what are the three or four things that are going to make the biggest difference," Castle told ESPN.

"We need to have at least one Super Rugby team driving success. It is only four years since the Waratahs won the competition. It has literally fallen off the face from a supporter view the last two years.

"Australian teams have to win consistently, so that when you buy your ticket, or turn the TV on, you believe your team can win. We've been through two years where Super Rugby fans have not been confident their team was going to win. That's what sells tickets and merchandise. What creates good competition is uncertainty of outcome.

"New Zealand has dominated Super Rugby for the past seven or eight years- and that's not great for the competition. We need consistent performances from our high-end teams. Then people become more positive about the other things which are happening in rugby."

To achieve that, there has long been calls for Australia to follow New Zealand in adopting a centralised system, so the governing body can ensure talent and resources are properly distributed. Castle can see the benefits.

"That's certainly a conversation I'd like to have. It has to be collaborative and all understand that everyone's performances are going to improve. It's not just about the Wallabies improving. Tribalism is important. What you also need is the Waratahs, Reds, Rebels and Brumbies having their own look and feel, play their own style, and bring those innovations that make you want to support one of those four teams. But the fundamentals of high performance should be under that, and that's where the centralised model can be so vital."

However it appears Rugby Australia won't be appeasing the lower levels by getting rid of the controversial player levy.

"Rugby Australia doesn't take a cent of that. We collect it, because it is easier from an administration point of view. It goes back to the province, states and territories so they can execute their community programs. It is actually a mechanism which allows investment into the grassroots. With the Force moving on, we have made an extra $(Aus)1m investment into grassroots rugby across the states and territories this year and looking at committing to that amount the next three years. I understand why people are angry about the levy, but the money is going back to help grassroots rugby."

At least Rugby Australia is aware it has to do more in ensuring rugby remains strong in private schools and find ways to persuade teenagers not to be lured by the rugby league or overseas dollar.


Meet Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle talks about her sporting background, early love of rugby and being born in Australia.

"Interestingly 40 percent of our Wallabies over the past ten years have come from private schools. So 60 percent have come from elsewhere. Do we need to make sure that we maintain the relationship with those schools where so much talent has come from? Yes we do. Do we face a big challenge from AFL, who have an enormous balance sheet and spend a lot of money ensuring they get into those types of schools? Yes, that is an enormous challenge for us, and we need to understand that.

"As for league, it's just a money thing. There's 16 rugby league clubs, and four rugby clubs. So the numbers are challenging. You have 16 contracts coming at you from league. We need to be locking down that talent. Rugby Australia is currently working on a plan on how we are going to talent ID and secure that."

Then there are those lured by exorbitant overseas contracts.

"We are losing some, but we're only looking at about four who are Wallaby capable. Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sean McMahon are the main two. The player drain is happening more at club rugby level. We're fairly comfortable with the way the Giteau rule is working, as it is keeping the top talent here playing Super Rugby because they want to be Wallabies. Then if you have played 60 or more Tests for Australia, you have earnt the right to play overseas."

Castle may even have to look overseas to find a replacement for Cheika, who has stated he will move on if Australia doesn't win the World Cup next year. Her preference for the next Wallabies coach is an Australian, but an overseas candidate is definitely not out of the question.

Joe Schmidt would have to be at the top of that Wallabies head coach wish list, after he out-coached Cheika the past fortnight to win Ireland the series.

So much will depend on Australia ensuring it maintains a lucrative pay television broadcasting deal when it expires in two years' time. There is deep concern that rugby may be left behind, especially with Fox Sports focusing on AFL, rugby league and now cricket, which could lead to a dramatic drop in broadcasting revenue that Rugby Australia relies upon to run the game.

"To think anything other than concern about the market place would not be responsible. We do have something special internationally called the Wallabies- and that's a real driver. There is national interest. Rugby League, AFL, cricket fans turn the TV on to watch the Wallabies. That's a real jewel in a crown.

"The Rugby Championship is really important, as are the end of year Northern Hemisphere tours. It is important that we understand the broadcasting environment, because it is changing here. But we still believe rugby holds a strong place in that."

And is she a strong-enough figurehead to be able to negotiate through this minefield?

"I believe I am able to make those tough decisions."

The next few months, as she attempts to win over a sceptical Australian rugby fraternity, will determine that.