‘Rolled over’: blowtorch turns on to rugby boss
A REPORTED $8 million settlement makes Israel Folau a rollicking victor in his drawn-out lawsuit with Rugby Australia - but while the facts are in dispute it is impossible for Australia to know who's really won.
All we really know, so far, is that Rugby Australia and its chief executive Raelene Castle are the losers.
On Thursday morning contrasting reports claimed Folau settled his unfair dismissal lawsuit with Rugby Australia for a multimillion-dollar settlement in exchange for mutual apologies between the two parties.
Considering Castle has publicly and repeatedly stated Rugby Australia was absolutely confident in its legal position, the entire country wants to know why exactly the governing body folded just a couple months from its trumpeted victorious day at the Federal Circuit Court.
Folau reportedly asked for $14 million in compensation for being sacked over his controversial social media posts, which read: "Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolators: Hell Awaits You. Repent! Only Jesus Saves."
The Daily Telegraph reports the payout is believed to be $8 million. The Australian reports it was "several million dollars".
Castle described the reports as "wildly inaccurate".
Peter FitzSimons speculated the payout to be as little as between $200,000 and $300,000.
He wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald that is makes no sense for Rugby Australia to have settled the dispute for any financial figure higher than that.
That question mark now lies at the heart of the blowtorch that has been turned on Castle in the wake of the top administrator's reported backdown.
Castle took to Twitter on Thursday morning to deny reports Folau had received a payout of $8 million in compensation as part of the confidential settlement.
Folau settlement numbers are confidential but numbers being speculated are wildly inaccurate— Raelene Castle (@raelenecastle) December 4, 2019
CALLS FOR CASTLE TO BE SACKED
Widespread media reports and commentary on Thursday morning declared Castle's position as Rugby Australia chief executive untenable.
The former Canterbury Bulldogs boss is far from the only official in the gun.
Rugby Australia chairman Cameron Clyne's entire administration and board looks vulnerable heading into the RA annual general meeting in April - where The Australian reports a major shake-up of the board is being prepared.
Castle - the face of Rugby Australia during the crisis - has had to wear the lion's share of the scathing criticism, however.
Commentators have declared Castle would have been forced to offer her resignation if Rugby Australia had have been any other conventional corporate enterprise
The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen wrote Folau had pulled off a "stonking" win and claimed Rugby Australia clearly didn't have the strong legal footing it professed to have.
"A team of the sassiest spin doctors can't help Rugby Australia," Albrechtsen wrote.
"They lost on Wednesday. Big time. It was an old-fashioned shellacking not seen since the Wallabies lost to England in the World Cup quarter-final this year.
"Given that Westpac boss Brian Hartzer fell on his sword for a disaster he didn't know about, surely RA boss Raelene Castle should resign for a disaster she personally orchestrated."
She went on to write Castle was personally accountable for some of the mistakes made in the Folau judiciary hearing.
"Just as it is clear that Folau settled because he has walked away with a stonking big win - an apology and a healthy sum of money - it is equally clear that RA rolled over because it couldn't bear a court case," she wrote.
"And another year of being reminded of its hopeless mishandling of this matter.
"And imagine the relief on Kate Eastman's face on Wednesday afternoon. Folau's team was set to argue that the Sydney barrister's role in the original tribunal hearing that led to Folau's sacking raised questions of bias, or perceptions of bias. Eastman, a human rights lawyer, has a long history of supporting LGBTI causes.
"Good on her, that is her business. But her inclusion on the tribunal to sit in judgment on a devout Christian was a silly stunt that backfired badly."
The calls for Castle to be held to account for the mess were widespread on the morning of Folau's claimed victory.
Total vindication. Religious freedom wins. But why haven’t heads rolled at Rugby Australia for all the destruction wrought? https://t.co/q7OAAj3fcm— Miranda Devine (@mirandadevine) December 4, 2019
Really disappointed that rugby Australia settled this case.. https://t.co/QMruNKWceR— Gordon D'Arcy (@Gordonwdarcy) December 4, 2019
Castle responded to her critics on Thursday morning by digging her heels in and refusing to resign.
She told reporters she has received "extensive support" from the rugby community for how Rugby Australia has handled the messy crisis.
She insisted she remains the right person to lead Australian rugby into 2020.
"I do because at the end of the day this has been very difficult," she said.
"From the beginning people have looked to us to see how we've dealt with this and ultimately, we've had extensive support from the rugby community and also from the wider business community."
She flatly denied the governing body had botched the dispute process.
"No we didn't get this wrong," she said.
"At the end of the day we stood up for the values of Rugby Australia. The person who chose to breach the code of conduct was found guilty and his contract was terminated because of that. That stands up and continues to say this is an inclusive sport."
Former Wallaby FitzSimons said he was disappointed to see Rugby Australia settle and deny the case going to a public court hearing - especially after Rugby Australia had seemed so resolute in its case.
His accepting of Rugby Australia's rhetoric juxtaposed sharply with the reports of Folau's multimillion-dollar compensation package.
"Everybody wants to know how much. I have no inside knowledge of the terms, not even a hint, but my bet is it will be about $200,000 to $300,000," he wrote for Fairfax Media.
"RA was confident its case was a slam-dunk legally. It had ample evidence he had made a legal commitment to not put up damaging posts again, and that this was a matter of a broken contract. RA never wavered in its view it had no choice but to sack him, and had evidence for that, too.
"So with all that, why settle?
"Because if it was a relatively small amount, a couple of hundred grand or the like, it would be worth it to finish the agony, stop the legal bills and allow RA to focus exclusively on the game again.
"Any sum more than that and I hope RA would have said, "bring it on, we'll see you in court".
It turns out the sum was reportedly much, much more than that.
Even worse, her one chance to save her office - the next Super Rugby and Wallabies broadcast deal - has been a nightmare since step one.
Having paid record amounts in its AFL, NRL and cricket broadcast deals, Foxtel has reportedly gone cold on the rights for rugby and other sports, including the A-League.
Smith said Castle will struggle to keep her office if the court of public opinion continues to read about Rugby Australia bending over to pay Folau more than his entire $4 million contract was worth.
"If it can be demonstrated that she paid over the odds to have this intricate mess go away - and anything more than $5m, the amount he would have been paid for the next four years, would seem excessive - then it could well be she might struggle to hold her critics at bay," Smith wrote.
"Not that she would have taken this decision unilaterally. The entire RA board would have had to sign off on a settlement of this magnitude. Her job is, after all, to implement the will of the board.
"Castle, moreover, still has to land the one prize that can guarantee her survival: a meaningful broadcast deal. Here again, she's munching on a s*** sandwich, having to try to squeeze more money out of broadcasters while having fewer Super Rugby games to sell."
Sydney Morning Herald chief reporter Jessica Irvine also said the reported settlement figure "reflects really badly on Rugby Australia".
In response to a suggestion from Today Show host Tom Steinfort that the legal dispute has been a "costly debacle" - Irvine said: "This should have been tested in court.
"I don't like the idea of it being settled out of court just to make him go away. I think this is a really important principle as to can you use the guise of religion to say whatever you want?
"I don't think you can. I think this reflects really badly on rugby Australia because they've come out and said this is a deeply held religious belief and we accept that and he's allowed to say whatever we wants."
“You’re not allowed to just say whatever you want. You can’t say things that slander people, you can’t say things that incite hatred against people.” @Jess_Irvine on Israel Folau's reported $8 million payout from Rugby Australia. #9Today pic.twitter.com/dPuSNiuJVR— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) December 4, 2019
However, with Rugby Australia facing an unprecedented period of turbulence, Castle and chairman Clyne still have their supporters.
NSW Waratahs chief Roger Davis urged Rugby Australia board factions not to move against Clyne's administration ahead of next year's AGM
The Australian on Wednesday reported Davis calling for Rugby figures to band together and dismissed any suggestion of a "precipitous" spill motion against the current administration in its time of crisis.
NSW Waratahs chief Roger Davis tells me that he wants to avoid anything as “precipitous” as a spill motion to oust Rugby Australia chairman Cameron Clyne with immediate effect amid ongoing disquiet about the board’s handling of the #IsraelFolau scandal. https://t.co/FYGpUiT9K6— Steve Jackson (@Jacko) December 4, 2019