It was her first job in sport. Raelene Castle was so excited that she volunteered to do anything, be it carrying bags or driving the team bus.
Status never concerned Castle, then the newly appointed chief executive of Netball New Zealand, and she ended up driving the nation’s finest netballers across Australia for a 2007 tour.
“She wanted to understand the Silver Ferns culture and what it was like to tour,” a former colleague of Castle’s at Netball NZ, Kerry Manders, told The New Daily.
“She said: ‘I don’t want to do anything than drive the bus, carry your bags and just be part of the team’. And that’s what she did.”
Castle herself added: “It was a way to engage with the players and get to know the coaches and managers.
“It was just a great experience for me to understand what they do on tour.”
That willingness to build relationships has held Castle in good stead through an impressive career in sports administration that has also taken in stints at the International Netball Federation, the Canterbury Bulldogs and her job since January as Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Australia.
Castle – appointed to the top job in Aussie rugby in December – has always loved sport.
Her father, Bruce, captained New Zealand’s rugby league team, while her mother, Marlene, went to four Commonwealth Games to represent the Kiwis in lawn bowls.
It was a sport Raelene excelled in, too, winning a national title, while she played for Auckland in both tennis and netball in her younger days.
“Sport in our house wasn’t our social activity. It was our full family engagement,” she told The New Daily.
Everything we did as a family revolved around my brother and I playing sport on the weekends.
“Dad and I would sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watch the Winfield Cup [Australian rugby league competition].
“We’d equally get up in the middle of the night and watch rugby Test matches from the other side of the world.
“We were fully immersed in a household that loved its sport and it bound our family together.”
Castle, who speaks with a thick Kiwi accent, was born in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, but moved to Auckland at the age of just six months.
Despite her obvious talent, Castle couldn’t quite crack it as a professional sportswoman, leading to a career in the corporate world.
Stints at the likes of Fuji Xerox and the Bank of New Zealand followed as she also juggled involvement in the sponsorship of Rugby World Cup events and marketing of the America’s Cup, but a full-time gig in sport remained Castle’s priority.
“I always wanted to end up working in sport,” she said.
“But the reality these days of working in sports administration in senior management levels is you need to have had some quite significant experience in the commercial space because they are big businesses.
“The days of starting off as the junior development office and working your way up to CEO was probably not realistic.”
A chance trip in the car in 2007 changed everything.
“I just had that moment … I was driving down the road and heard the CEO of Netball NZ had re-signed,” she said.
“By the end of the night, I had made six phone calls to people who were connected with netball.
“I went through that process and was lucky enough to get appointed in that role and it was a really significant change point for me in my career.”
Ex-Netball NZ chairman Raewyn Lovett was immediately impressed with Castle’s authenticity and clear strategy.
“She spoke to a lot of people and talked to us about the relationships she had and the importance of those relationships and terms of the way she did business,” Lovett told The New Daily.
“We were impressed with how she presented that to us, and we believe that she showed real potential in terms of being a leader.
“She was very compelling and convincing in her view of where netball was going.”
Any thoughts of a honeymoon period disappeared when Netball NZ lost its major sponsor, Fisher & Paykel.
Castle had to act quickly and sensitively.
“That could be quite daunting for a new CEO,” Lovett said.
“Because of her contacts and people she knew and without there being any impact on the organisation, we found a replacement sponsor [supermarket chain New World] which was great.
“At the same time, we were starting up a new Trans-Tasman championship.
“She had all of that dealing with an organisation under quite a lot of stress, which meant getting to know the netball community quickly.
“She doesn’t shy away from an issue. Some people think, ‘well if I just let that sit in the corner, that will take care of itself’. That’s not Raelene’s style.”
After six years in that post, Castle moved to Australia in 2013 and became CEO of the Canterbury Bulldogs.
She brought across her partner, Greg Jones, who gave up his 21-year job at retail firm The Warehouse to join her in Sydney.
She revealed in 2014 she has alopecia, telling the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s not normal for women to lose their hair. I really don’t want people to think it’s the job and that stress is making my hair fall out.”
Her appointment at the Bulldogs raised eyebrows as fans questioned the worth of a female from New Zealand in the role.
And Castle admitted the public-facing nature of the role took her by surprise.
“You only have to sneeze and someone will write a story about it on the back page of The Telegraph,” she joked.
(The media focus) was certainly challenging to get your head around and understand the implications of what that meant to your business, sponsors, players and coaches.”
Steve Turner was at the Bulldogs as both a player and in an off-field role during Castle’s time there and enjoyed her transparent approach.
“She was very engaging with the fans and the members,” he told The New Daily.
“She was always willing to have open discussions. A big thing for Raelene was her door was open, whether to chat about life, the game, any other sport.”
Of course, rugby presents a new set of challenges.
The game is fractured across the country and still reeling from the decision to cut Perth-based Western Force from the Super Rugby competition.
The Wallabies have not won the Bledisloe Cup – a two-team competition – since 2002 and the national team’s lack of success has had a major impact on public interest levels.
Castle acknowledges things aren’t as they should be.
“I’d really like to see that it [rugby] was a sport that was united across the country,” she said.
“It’s got great building blocks that have been established over more than 100 years and [it is] a sport that is played right across Australia.
“But it’s not working in unison as well as it could be. I’d really like to see that rugby was united and working together for the good of the game.”
And her main goal?
“I’d probably also like to work to see all Australians feel passionate and support the Wallabies,” she said.
“I might be an AFL or NRL fan, but when the Wallabies are playing, because they are our national team that play in the winter, I’d like to think those sport fans turn on the TV and be proud of them.”