NRL: New Bulldogs chief 'one of a kind'

By Dylan Cleaver

Forthright netball administrator's step up to leading NRL job comes with unstinting praise from former colleagues.

Raelene Castle. Photo / Supplied
Raelene Castle. Photo / Supplied

During a lifetime in netball, Lois Muir has seen a lot of administrators come and go. Probably too many.

One sticks in her mind for all the right reasons, however, and that's the one who's leaving in July to take her place in the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs' kennel.

"An amazing woman - one of a kind really," said Muir of Raelene Castle, yesterday confirmed as chief executive of the Sydney NRL club.

Muir said Castle's special ability as Netball NZ chief executive was to drive through change - "there are so many milestones that happened during her tenure" - when netball folk didn't necessarily want it. She did it without disenfranchising anybody, whether they were at the high-performance end of the sport or the Saturday morning volunteers.

"She has a tremendous ability to communicate with people and value people," Muir continued.

Her testimony in support of Castle is glowing, though not unique.

All those spoken to by the Herald yesterday were unstinting in their praise, but the challenge presented by the Bulldogs will be greater than any Castle faced at Netball New Zealand.

She is walking into an environment where the scent of testosterone mingles with linament to provide a fragrance called "Macho".

She has not just poked her head above the "grass ceiling" but come steamrolling through it.

"It is a breakthrough," says long-time leaguie Peter Leitch, aka the Mad Butcher. "She is a New Zealander and a woman."

The last point is more remarkable than the former. The NRL has made huge strides on this because league was not a sport noted for progressive attitudes towards women.

The Bulldogs, in 2004, were the subject of shocking gang-rape allegations while on a pre-season trip to Coffs Harbour.

No charges were laid, but the stain on the club was huge and, arguably, has never been fully expunged.

While Castle's administrative ability got her the job, there is no escaping the message as well, something NRL chief executive Dave Smith alluded to.

"It is ... worth acknowledging the significance of a female chief executive and the message of opportunity that the appointment sends to women in our game," Smith said. "There are exciting opportunities opening in rugby league and this shows an ability to attract the best candidates both male and female."

Few doubt Castle's credentials, both on a professional and personal level. Born into sport - father Bruce was a back-rower for the Kiwis (Raelene was born while he was player-coach at Turvey Park in Wagga Wagga) and mother Marlene a long-time national bowls rep - Castle left the corporate world in 2007 to take up the chief executive post at Netball New Zealand.

During that time she has ushered in radical changes, abolishing the 12 regions and creating five zones aligned to a transtasman franchise.

It was a controversial and initially unpopular proposal, but by September she had 79 per cent support within council and pushed the changes through.

"She's made significant, groundbreaking changes," says Kereyn Smith, NZOC general-secretary.

Smith, a good friend, had talked to Castle about her professional aspirations and knew she badly wanted this job. She also knows that, despite the challenging environment, Castle has the right stuff.

"She's really matter-of-fact, no-nonsense. What you see is what you get. She can be brutally honest and you don't always see that in sport."

The other quality that Smith admires is her passion.

"You can sit down and have a glass of wine with her and talk about any number of sports. She loves it."

Smith said any woman wanting to progress in sports administration was acutely aware they were in a male-dominated sector.

"You have to be able to operate effectively with men. Getting taken seriously requires you to earn their respect. Raelene will do that."

Liz Dawson, who was chief executive of the short-lived start-up Adelaide Rams in the "vitriolic" days of Super League versus the ARL, said: "Rugby league is a very tough sport to be involved in. It is very political.

"It's tough on the pitch, tough in the boardroom and tough administratively," Dawson said. "A lot of guys involved as CEOs, as football managers and on boards ... were former players and they deal with administration matters as they would on the pitch."

Warriors' chief executive Wayne Scurrah said there was a surprisingly big female influence in the game already.

"I expect Raelene to be very comfortable in that environment. It's not a sexist thing, it's more cronyism among the Sydney clubs.

"They are more united because the history is longer there. It's Sydney versus the rest of the competition in terms of some of the decisions.

"It's a big, big game in Australia and Sydney is the home of the NRL so she will be among the top level with one of the best coaches in the game and a club that has just come off a grand final. With that goes a lot of expectation from fans.

"There's no doubt it's a demanding role but I'm sure she's up to it."

So far the appointment has been greeted without a hint of rancour. On the contrary, there is an almost celebratory feel.

Leitch, who knew the Castles when Bruce, a Kiwis captain in 1967, coached Mangere-East, described him as "one of the gentlemen" of the game. "Right now, he'd be very, very proud of his daughter."

Castle up for challenge

Raelene Castle says she is looking forward to the challenge at the Bulldogs.

"I have grown up with rugby league. I believe my appreciation of its history and the importance of the game ... will be an excellent platform for the business acumen I bring to this role," she said.

"The strong governance, sound financial standing, alongside the priority the Bulldogs place on community engagement, provide me with an excellent opportunity to continue the substantial growth the business has shown in recent times.

"I am excited for the opportunities ahead ... and I will look to continue a Bulldogs tradition of innovation and strong leadership."

Raelene Castle

Born: Wagga Wagga, NSW
Age: 42
* Chief executive of Netball New Zealand since 2007.
* Played a key role in the establishment of the transtasman netball championship and of securing a naming rights sponsor for the international competition and broadcast rights in NZ.
* Director of Netball NZ, the transtasman championship, the International Netball Federation and chairwoman of the NZ National Sports Organisations' leadership group.
* Has worked in key roles for Telecom, Fuji Xerox and Bank of New Zealand.
* Received the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award in 2011.
* New Zealand lawn bowls champion and has played netball and tennis at representative level.
* Father Bruce played for the Kiwis 1961-67 and was captain in 1967.
* Mother Marlene was a New Zealand bowls representative for 16 years, winning three Commonwealth Games medals and a world indoors title.
* Begins with the Bulldogs on July 15.

- NZ Herald

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