Raelene Castle now top dog in a man's world

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 28/07/2013
Raelene Castle
Fairfax NZ
CROSSING THE DITCH: Netball New Zealand CEO Raelene Castle has been appointed the new boss of the Canterbury Bulldogs.

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Raelene Castle doesn't have to gaze far for confirmation of her position in a male-dominated workplace.

The wall-length window in her office at Belmore Sports Ground overlooks the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs gymnasium, where, at various times during the week the NRL club's finest pump iron while - on Tuesday at least - she keeps a respectful distance.

Women, after all, have not always been condoned on the premises - as television reporter Jayne Azzopardi discovered on "Mad Monday" on October 2012, when she was allegedly abused verbally while covering the Bulldogs' post-Grand Final, end-of-season drinking games.

Castle, thankfully, received a more convivial welcome when the New Zealander officially took over as chief executive on July 15 - the morning after the Bulldogs avenged their defeat in last year's title decider by thrashing Melbourne 39-0 at ANZ Stadium.

The 42-year-old former head of Netball New Zealand sat in the Dogs box that night, and was noticed leaping out of her seat and fist-pumping - undeniably a good look for a sports administrator out to earn acceptance as the Bulldogs first female CEO.

"I'm claiming that one," she smiled, though admitting the competition points were actually accrued on Todd Greenberg's watch, a fitting farewell for one of the NRL's most visible and effective club bosses.

Greenberg, who takes up the role as Head of Football with the Australian Rugby League Commission next month, has been an important ally for Castle since she was named as the code's first female chief executive since fellow Kiwi Liz Dawson oversaw the Adelaide Rams - those lambs to the slaughter when Super League failed to buck the establishment in 1997.

Castle admits there can be an "awkwardness" when and if the career paths of the incoming and outgoing chief executive intersect.

Greenberg was at the back of the auditorium when Castle was introduced to staff and media in late May and since then he has made the transition worry-free for the latest Kiwi to join a contingent including Sam Perrett, Krisnan Inu, Greg Eastwood, Frank Pritchard, Sam Kasiano and Dene Halatau.

"From day one Todd said ‘this is your office now, you're in here, you're in charge and you're making the decisions'.

"I couldn't have asked for a better crossover because you've got the person that's had the experience and done all the hard work for the last five years handing over," Castle explained when eight days into her tenure.

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"Everything is in really good shape. It's one of those ‘relief' moments I suppose, because when you take a new job you're never quite sure what you're going to find when you sit in the seat." Perhaps if she was employed as a secretary earlier in the club's 79-year-old history, Castle might have found a whoopee cushion in embarrassing circumstances, in this day and age it's business as usual.

The Bulldogs had a bye week when their new boss assumed control, and while the players relaxed there was no respite for Castle, who has been busy getting acquainted with the office staff, the number-crunchers, the tackle-breakers and their wives and girlfriends.

"They say they're the ‘family club' and they genuinely are," she said.

"Everyone has made me feel incredibly welcome."

Castle met the playing group after she was appointed, would gradually get to know them better, and accepted it would take time before they felt she was on their side.

"That was my experience with the Silver Ferns. It doesn't happen overnight. You have to earn it, you have to find that way."

So Castle won't shy away from building relationships with her blue-and-white collar workers.

"It is important because ultimately they sign that contract with you, with the club, and you as the CEO.

"They need to know who you are, what you're about - where your line in the sand is when bad things happen, and where the celebration will be when things go well.

"It doesn't mean you're their best mate. It just means they can feel comfortable with you around in the environment."

When it emerged Castle was on the shortlist after the role attracted more than 3000 expressions of interest, her gender rather than an impressive managerial background became a focal point.

Questions were also raised about her ability to bond with coach Des Hasler, an intense perfectionist with the deceptive appearance of a laidback surfer from Sydney's northern beaches, circa 1970.

"We've had a couple of meetings now and that's gone really well," said Castle, who obviously isn't suggesting fifth-tackle plays to the premiership-winning player and coach.

They met a couple of days ago to assess the football programme and prior to that discussion Castle was glad to report: "Some of the other guys in football programme are really keen to share and that's fantastic."

Hasler is not the only potentially intimidating presence at Belmore, though Castle's background as a bonafide Bulldogs fan means Terry Lamb and Steve Mortimer are embraced, rather than feared.

Castle grew up watching "Turvey" Mortimer playing alongside her father Bruce in Wagga Wagga, she then cheered on Mortimer and Lamb once they established one of the Bulldogs' greatest halves combinations.

"People like Terry and Steve just couldn't be more welcoming. We've got Terry working on staff as an ambassador.

"It's pretty cool to have someone that I grew up watching so closely wandering around the hallways."

Naturally, the reaction via IP addresses in Lakemba and Punchbowl was not always as enlightened when a woman was entrusted with the purse strings.

Some contributors to "The Kennel" online fan forum posted the standard sexist and chauvinistic rhetoric, yet on the streets of Belmore there has been nothing other than qualified support.

"I genuinely haven't," said Castle, when asked if she had encountered any resistance.

"I'm sure they're stepping back to wait and see, as they would if it had been a new male CEO after Todd has done such a great job."

Castle has benefited by inheriting a strategic plan devised by Greenberg and does not envisage making radical changes - she never identified as an alpha dog when she applied.

"I'm not one of those people that sits and looks from the outside and says ‘Gee I think there's a big gap here, or I think I could really do that'," she said.

"There is some really good stable governance and management structures in place.

"We're not talking about revolution here, we're talking about evolution."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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