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Amateur hour returns as Castle crumbling sends rugby back to the past

The COVID-19 crisis, as we’re all finding out, is an unfolding drama of revelation. We are finding out what people and institutions are made of. In this killing season for chief executives, rugby has shown that it was still true to its cultural roots: private schoolboys too brain-dead to organise a piss-up on Zoom. No, that’s too harsh on schoolboys. Whatever your opinion of Castle’s performance during her three-year tenure, positive or negative, her resignation laid bare a degree of disorganisation that, frankly, would be an embarrassment to most suburban clubs.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

Days earlier, rugby league had shown how to do it. Again, whatever the rights and wrongs, whatever the agendas behind Todd Greenberg’s removal, whatever the cold-bloodedness of the Game of Thrones drama that he lost, whatever Greenberg’s overall legacy may be, it can be said that the NRL carries out its executions skilfully. Greenberg and his chairman, Peter V’landys, put out an unconvincing but tight statement of mutuality, and then Greenberg donned a smile and told the public he was proud of his tenure and would remain league’s biggest fan. He was given as dignified a departure as circumstances allowed. He was put away with a swift thrust of a shiv up under the ribcage. Castle, by contrast, was carved up by blind butchers with a blunt blade.

You couldn’t make this one up. The black comedy had started with an open letter signed by 11, no 10, former Wallaby captains whingeing from the sidelines, offering no solutions other than bleating for a change of leadership. (Hey, isn’t that the media’s job?) As a coup, it was akin to the officers of the Titanic coming to the realisation that the best response to the hole in the hull was to seize the wheel from the captain and turn back for Southampton.

Former Wallaby teammates Phil Kearns and Nick Farr-Jones were both in the halls of power throughout many of rugby's recent dramas.

Former Wallaby teammates Phil Kearns and Nick Farr-Jones were both in the halls of power throughout many of rugby’s recent dramas.Credit:Simon Aleka

Then there was the identification of Nick Farr-Jones and Phil Kearns as the strongest personalities behind the letter. Where were they when the game was heading for the iceberg? In its boardrooms. If Farr-Jones were in a position of influence, then Israel Folau would still be playing for the Wallabies and continuing to speak from a place of love. Only he wouldn’t, because the Wallabies wouldn’t have any sponsors, and if there’s one thing we know about Folau, it’s that he’s not going to hang around in a sport without any money. But apparently Folau’s place of love was Raelene Castle’s fault.

Competence no longer mattered. The gentlemen’s club had gathered together and stamped their feet.

Farr-Jones’s standing comes from the fact that he was one of the greatest Wallabies. There is no doubt about his distinction on the field. He has backed a push for his fellow Newington College Old Boy Kearns to become CEO. Kearns was also an iconic Wallaby, a World Cup winner in Farr-Jones’s team best known for sticking it up his All Blacks opposite number Sean Fitzpatrick back in 1990. An inspiring moment from the amateur era. On the other hand, Kearns’s capacity for original, insightful thinking and articulate understanding of the game has been on public display every week for Fox Sports.

The open letter upheld anyone’s ideal of amateurism, right down to counting the numbers. And then there were 10. Michael ‘Noddy’ Lynagh, who received Farr-Jones’s bullet-like passes for so many years, had signed the letter and booted it downfield without reading the fine print. Or the large print. Noddy nodded along and nodded off. His personal fortune is currently on its way to Nigeria.

Todd Greenberg and Raelene Castle, pictured here in happier times in 2013 when the former took over from Greenberg at the Bulldogs, both lost their jobs this week.

Todd Greenberg and Raelene Castle, pictured here in happier times in 2013 when the former took over from Greenberg at the Bulldogs, both lost their jobs this week.Credit:Wolter Peeters

At least Lynagh had the courage to swallow his embarrassment and back out publicly. That took guts. As a dissenter, he joined the other captains who did not sign the letter: John Eales, Mark Ella, Tony Shaw, Mark Loane, Phil Waugh, Tim Horan, David Wilson and Grand Slam winner Andrew Slack. Plenty of grise on both sides, but more eminence among the non-signatories.

If this was a failed coup, its disorganisation, poor tactical sense, questionable motives and absence of content were a combined masterstroke. Competence no longer mattered. The gentlemen’s club had gathered together and stamped their feet.

Over at the NRL, Greenberg said he was proud of his legacy of encouraging inclusiveness in league. He didn’t invent inclusiveness, but he recognised that it is an underlying force that is going to outlive all the daily skirmishes and revolving-door managers. Rugby, two days later, sacrificed a chief executive in the name of exclusiveness. Those who thought Folau never did anything wrong have now received their payback. As rugby’s constituency shrinks back to its true-blue heartland, Mosman rules.

Rugby was for years the sick man of Australian sport, but now it’s just the one that’s been in the hospital ward the longest. It’s been joined by a few mates.

The sky has fallen in on all sports democratically, but they are all showing their true character.

Rugby league is about the ruthless pursuit of self-interest and bending the rules to its advantage. Rugby union is about restoring a mythical past. Cricket – we’ll get to cricket another day.

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Truth is, the day the CEO of Rugby Australia arrives in their office they are served up a big poo sandwich. Castle, like Bill Pulver before her, put in years of earnest effort but was ultimately not judged to be eating that sandwich in a sufficiently manly, Wallaby style. Someone else will be found to do it. Let’s hope it isn’t one of those dogs who chase cars all day, only, when the car stops for them, to have no idea what to do with it.

At these times, when all are left lying in the same gutter looking at the same stars, it might not make much difference who takes stewardship of a game’s decline. When solvency is the issue, big names and big egos aren’t going to register. The Sydney-based gentlemen’s club has reasserted its prerogatives. Now it’s full-steam ahead to 1991.

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