Once, in a former life, I was a partner in a company in which another partner presented a negative budget to the board.
In other words, he forecast a loss for the coming year. This is generally not a wise tactic. You are saying to your fellow shareholders that your best work will lose them money. He ran our office in another country and an unforeseen event – rather like the coronavirus, as it happens – had pitched the business environment into a state where few were buying what we were selling.
But you don't present a negative budget. You maintain profit might be curtailed because of obvious business difficulties – but profit there will be. If you do not make budget, that is also not good but there are sometimes extenuating circumstances shareholders can understand and are able to see the way forward. The partner – a lovely guy – was gone soon after.
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I was reminded of him as I watched some Australian rugby folk loose the hounds on beleaguered Australian Rugby CEO Raelene Castle last week.
At their recent AGM, Castle (daughter of fine 1960s Auckland and New Zealand league player Bruce Castle) presided over the unveiling of an unaudited 2019 annual report recording a loss of A$9.4 million, publicly giving themselves a 72 per cent pass mark on their "internal scoreboard".
That went down like a submarine with screen doors. Castle was already being targeted by a cabal of former international players who, though small in number, were stridently calling for her head well in advance of the effects of the virus.
The internal rating incensed them. Lose $9m bucks and give yourself 7.2 out of 10? You can see why my former partner came to mind. However, poor public relations judgement is not really a reason to deep-six your CEO at a time of global crisis.
Castle is also being hung for the pre-coronavirus decision to decline Foxtel's $40 million a year, five-year, offer for TV rights last November – which has left Australian Rugby without a vital broadcast partner. Castle was pushing Foxtel for more and was about to play them off against an offer from Optus when the virus struck. Australian rugby now faces a $120m worst-case financial meltdown.
That $9.4m loss was pre-virus, brought on by dwindling crowds at Super Rugby and international level, top players heading overseas, the Israel Folau debacle, the Wallabies' fading ability at top level and rugby losing further ground to league, AFL, basketball and football.
That all of that is held to be Castle's fault is ludicrous. If her critics are successful, there will be a new CEO – but it's doubtful a change in leadership can fix what is wrong with the game there immediately. It's a bit like your car blowing a gasket and attempting to repair it by rotating the tyres.
Respected Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Georgina Robinson made the telling point that no leader – not even heir apparent and former Wallaby skipper Phil Kearns – would have made any difference if they had faced those same systemic issues instead of Castle.
Former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons estimated Castle is copping at least half of the criticism because she is a woman. You can bet there are still some drooling troglodytes in Australian rugby who don't like that. This is Australia after all, still not universally hailed as the warm and welcoming home of racial and gender tolerance.
Castle's every move, at every turn, is dogged by baying former Wallabies like Kearns, Rod Kafer, Nick Farr-Jones and viciously opinionated radio motormouth Alan Jones, former Wallaby coach. For example, her 50 per cent pay cut wasn't enough for the wolves, who slammed her for still earning more than the players. She increased the cut to 65 per cent.
You could argue she erred in not taking Israel Folau out the back and metaphorically shooting him instead of re-signing him for four years on a big-ass deal; it was clear his religious views came first and he was going to be more trouble than a houseful of rats with a geriatric cat.
Similarly, buying a fight with professional players over key financial documents they needed to assess what kind of post-virus pay cut to take was a mistake – making her standing with one of her key stakeholders even more insecure. All the while, commentators like Jones are painting a picture of incompetence, entitlement, bloated staff levels and "rugby warlords in ivory towers".
Castle may not be perfect and those errors may be enough to tip the balance against her. She seems to be losing the PR battle, though that is not the most important fight in this war. Any change needs to achieve better results, something none of those scapegoating Castle will be able to promise.
These are ugly days for Australian rugby with bankruptcy and systemic failure potential outcomes. On one side, howling for change, are Jones and the ex-Wallabies. On the board of Rugby Australia – and, so far, behind Castle – are other famous Wallaby names like chairman Paul McLean and former loose forwards Phil Waugh and Tim Gavin.
Rugby Australia has – or should have – just one goal in mind right now: survival. That will not be gained by factions tearing at each other's soft tissue. As most in New Zealand have discovered during the lockdown, the power of unified action towards a singular goal is the best solution.