When hulking Bulldogs league stars started calling their Kiwi boss "Auntie" as a mark of cultural respect, Raelene Castle knew she had won over the dressing room.

Castle repaid that respect - leading the iconic NRL club to a Grand Final, lifting its membership and providing an empowering female role model.

Now as the newly appointed boss of Rugby Australia, the first woman in the high-profile role, Castle will draw on her sporting mana as she helps repair football codes on both sides of the Tasman.

On Thursday, she flew to Western Australia to patch up relations following the axing of the Western Force from Super Rugby. Also this week, she and sports lawyer Tim Castle presented a first-draft report to the New Zealand Rugby League from their independent review into the Kiwis' World Cup failure.

Advertisement

The past few days have been a whirlwind, says the game-changing sports administrator and New Zealand sporting champion, who after hardly missing an All Blacks vs Wallabies test since her childhood, admits she will now be cheering for the Aussies.

"When you start any new job, I describe it as drinking out of the fire hydrant. It comes flying at you a million miles an hour. You capture a lit bit of it and most of it goes rushing past," says Castle, 47.

"Over six months you realise you've got to a stage where you're drinking out of the garden hose and it's more manageable.

"So I'm on that journey. Really just trying to get out and meet as many people in the rugby community and stakeholders as possible."

That journey includes a four-day trip to WA, where there is a lot of emotion over the decision to drop Western Force from Super Rugby as the Australian teams in the competition drop from five to four.

"There have been some challenges and some people that are hurting a lot from the decision," she says.

"It's a chance to say we can't change that decision, but let's make sure that WA continues to be an important part of our rugby family."

One of the challenges is attracting and keeping players in rugby in the face of competition from other codes like league and AFL in sports-mad Australia.

Advertisement

With a population of about 24 million, it has "something like 80 professional sporting teams - all competing for athletes and sponsors and TV rights".

The chance to compete in a Rugby World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, helped ensure "talented athletes see rugby as their future".

Castle grew up watching the New Zealand rugby side on TV alongside her Kiwis captain father and Commonwealth Games medallist mother at their East Auckland home. She has nothing but respect for "the legend that is the All Blacks".

But when the team next clashes with Australia, "there's absolutely no doubt at all that I'll be cheering for the Wallabies".

"I have spent an amount of time with (Wallabies coach) Michael Cheika already and I've spent time sitting down with (captain) Michael Hooper.

"I'm now part of that mix. So I want those people that I stand alongside, shoulder-to-shoulder with, to be successful."

Castle's vision of excellence extends off the field, where a number of young rugby and league stars have come publicly undone.

"The public landscape [in] which they perform and the amount of money they get paid means that for me it's not about role model and behaviour in the same sentence.

"It's about contracted value and recognition that when you get paid a large amount of money you represent an organisation and that means you have to make certain choices and behave in certain ways."

That includes respect of gender, sexuality and race.

Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle poses during a press conference at the Rugby Australia Building. Photo / Getty Images
Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle poses during a press conference at the Rugby Australia Building. Photo / Getty Images

"Being a respectful human being is something we should all strive to do. Equality and acceptance and inclusion are things that I'm really passionate about."

Being a woman had allowed her "the luxury of being able to take a different tone" in discussions with sports stars who have broken the rules.

"I've had a number of very, very difficult conversations over my time in rugby league. I think the difference is at the end of those very difficult discussions, you can stand up and give the player a hug - in a motherly way."

Castle is helping steer rugby league back to success at the highest level in her homeland, too, with the review she and Tim Castle (no relation) are carrying out into the Kiwis' 2017 World Cup campaign. The Kiwis crashed out after losing to Fiji in the quarterfinals.

The review's recommendations will be used by the NZRL to help with future World Cup campaigns and develop its high performance strategy for the next four years.

League in New Zealand was "a passionate and proud community", says Castle, who spent many Sunday afternoons at Carlaw Park with dad Bruce coaching the Mt Wellington Warriors and mum Marlene recording the statistics.

"[They] always want to see the Kiwis play well and perform. And particularly when you're playing a World Cup on home soil, their expectation is that you perform to the best of your abilities. And they felt that the team didn't.

"The challenge that we face is to try and find out why, and work out what the learnings are to make sure they can take that into their coming campaigns, be it World Cups or Anzac test matches."

League was part of her life from the outset. She was born in the New South Wales inland city of Wagga Wagga.

Bruce, a Kiwis loose forward and member of Auckland sides that beat Australia and Great Britain, was player-coach for Wagga Wagga's Turvey Park club.

The family returned to Bucklands Beach when she was 6 months old.

Life revolved around sport. Marlene was a lawn and indoor bowls international for New Zealand who won three Commonwealth Games medals and a world championship.

"Some of my earliest memories are getting up in the middle of the night to watch Challenge Cup finals, the All Blacks playing Wales," Castle says.

"The alarm would go off at 3 o'clock and we'd get up and Dad would make us a cup of tea. [That] definitely was what created the dreams for me around sport and what it could deliver."

Although both parents were "very low key", their prowess taught her and younger brother Ryan – who has competed in Ironman events and marathons – "to be proud to be competitive and want to do the best that you can do in whatever it is you take on".

Castle represented Auckland in tennis and netball in age-grade sides and was a New Zealand mixed-pairs champion in lawn bowls. She also played basketball, volleyball and touch.

She learned a valuable life lesson when she was cut from the Howick-Pakuranga under-18 netball side midway through the season, during her last year at Macleans College.

"I had to go back and say to my schoolmates I'd been dropped. So it was the dealing with the embarrassment. And the moment where you've got two choices.

"You either turn tail. Or you say, right, I'm going to prove that you were wrong, and train much harder and try and get selected the following year – which is what I managed to do.

"I'm an absolute believer that you learn a lot more from losing than you ever do from winning."

Graduating from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Commerce, she worked in key roles for Telecom, the Bank of New Zealand and Fuji Xerox.

She had extensive event management and sponsorship experience for the Rugby World Cups in 1995 and 1999; the Olympics in 1992, 1996 and 2000, and was a member of the marketing committee for the 2000 America's Cup.

A high point was travelling around New Zealand for three months with Sir Peter Blake to promote the America's Cup.

"I took that opportunity… to ask him a gazillion questions. He was very, very supportive and said whatever he could do to help me he would.

"I was incredibly devastated when he got killed, because he had been for me really iconic."

She was "thrilled" when she received a Sir Peter Blake Leadership award in 2011.

Castle moved to the sport sector when she was appointed chief executive of Netball New Zealand in 2007. Her corporate experience was vital in the role, she says.

"The reality of being a sports administrator these days is that they're big businesses.

"Rugby Australia is a A$120 million ($131m). You can't run a $120m business with 150 staff and 100 contracted athletes by not having had some robust commercial business experience."

Castle says she came into netball at the right time. "It was on the verge of moving into that professional era, it had great athletes."

All Blacks Outside Back, Israel Dagg gets quickly lost amongst Australian players in the high ball. Photo / Nick Reed
All Blacks Outside Back, Israel Dagg gets quickly lost amongst Australian players in the high ball. Photo / Nick Reed

Highlights in her six years at Netball New Zealand included the Silver Ferns double extra time sudden-death win over Australia in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final - "the most extraordinary roller coaster of emotions to go through" - and the launch in 2008 of the ANZ Championship premier netball league. "[We] gave female athletes in New Zealand a chance to … make a living out of playing sport."

When Castle became the first female CEO of the Bulldogs in 2013, one of her roles was a traditional visit to the players' dressing room after each game.

Potential awkwardness was dispelled by players' acceptance, and particularly because of the way the club's Kiwis representatives - Greg Eastwood, Sam Perrett and Frank Pritchard - called her "Auntie".

"The Polynesian boys saw it as a way to be respectful, and that was … something that I really appreciated."

Having the support of players with "an enormous amount of mana" in the game was a really positive thing.

When the club made the 2014 NRL Grand Final, the local community at Belmore, where the team was based, "was blue and white – cars, houses, lampposts, lawns, people".

"They were incredibly proud. There was singing and dancing and drums every night.

"And whilst there's always a little piece of your heart that is broken because you ended up on the wrong side of the result [beaten 30-6 by South Sydney], you still have to be proud of being part of that. That was very special."

Club membership increased from about 14,000 to more than 20,000 during her five years there and the percentage of female membership lifted, she says.

Castle says her appointment as the first female CEO of an NRL club broke down barriers and created new possibilities.

"Many, many women over my time in Sydney have stopped me in the street, at functions, and said to me, 'We just are so proud of you.'

"And we believe now that we can do [a] job we didn't know… would ever be possible.

"They've got someone to prove that it's possible. I'm a new norm, really."

Castle has also been applauded by alopecia sufferers and their families for going public about her hair loss.

She suffers from alopecia areata, or spot baldness – a condition that first manifested in her mid-30s. Her hair fell out slowly and evenly, before growing back.

The condition returned more aggressively during her time at Netball New Zealand, when she lost her hair in "massive patches". "One side of my head had heaps of hair on it and the other side of my head was completely bald."

She wore a wig to cover the hair loss but when she was photographed wearing a hat indoors in the heat of Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, speculation grew she had cancer.

When she wore a more comfortable headscarf and hats at the Bulldogs when the condition flared a third time, she was attacked by online trolls.

"I had some terrible sledging on social media around when I was wearing a headscarf – about being lazy, and not getting up early enough to do my hair, and couldn't I have made an effort, and what did I think I was - a pirate?"

Castle opened up about her condition to dispel rumours of cancer, and that the stress of her high-profile jobs is making her lose her hair.

Alopecia areata is believed to be an auto-immune disease. Castle says changing diet, exercising and altering stress levels have no effect. Her hair "just grows back when it's ready".

But she is aware of the challenges especially for young women of the condition.

"There is no doubt there is still that expectation of females to be properly presented, and having no hair or a shaved head is very confronting for people."

She shares her story to make other sufferers realise they're not alone.

"I've had lots of young women reach out to me and send me notes, and stop me at functions, and say thank you very much."

Dealing with the condition "certainly builds a level of resilience", Castle says, a valuable quality in her high-profile, demanding positions.

Backing her in her career is partner of 11 years, New Zealand property investor Greg Jones, 52.

"These jobs are very difficult to do, and when you've got a partner that is supportive it makes an enormous difference."

The couple live in inner Sydney's Pyrmont, and Jones flies across the Tasman as needed for business.

He is "a massive rugby fan", Castle says. "He's excited about my new challenge and the fact that we're going to have to be watching more Super Rugby now."

"He's not so thrilled about the Wallaby connection when we're playing the All Blacks," she says, laughing. "But we'll see how we go with that one!"