Raelene Castle says she doesn't play the female card but "if I can be successful it will pave the way for other females to have these opportunities in similar jobs". Photo: Kate Geraghty
Sunday was a difficult day for Raelene Castle.
Outwardly, it just looked like old times. There was the former Netball New Zealand chief executive, clad in black, with the Silver Ferns' brooch pinned to her left breast, quietly going around the players and offering a hug and a kind word after another heartbreaking loss to Australia.
The warmth between her and the players was striking and you presume it will always be there. But this isn't Castle's show anymore and that was the hard part.
She knows she made the right decision, when she left NNZ to become chief executive of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs NRL club, even if it meant she had to sever most of her ties to people she'd become genuinely close to.
"Yep, it's awesome and that's not because I didn't love netball," Castle said.
"I loved every single moment of it and I come here today and it makes me feel slightly ill. But it's time for a new set of eyes in netball, to look at it and take it to the next level."
Castle would've been entitled to mention that she'd also climbed every mountain possible in her six years at NNZ. She needed new challenges and got one as soon as she walked in the door of the Bulldogs' Belmore base.
The club's marquee player, and 2012 Dally M winner, Ben Barba wanted out. The Bulldogs, prior to Castle's arrival, had stood him down for vague reasons and now there were stories, and a photo, which suggested Barba had been involved in an unsavoury domestic incident.
Castle had received a warm welcome and done her best to sit down and talk rugby league over a beer with anyone who would listen.
Now the Kiwi chick had to show that she was a lot more than just a fan who got lucky.
"If I look at it from a glass half-full perspective, it was an amazing opportunity for me to step up and show some leadership early on," said Castle.
"I had to engage with the media on a very in-depth level, I had to deal with the players, so they understood what was happening, and I had to deal with the board and all sorts of stuff.
"So it was a crisis - and I use that word in terms of the media situation - that had to be handled delicately. You wouldn't choose to have a situation like that, but I did. It was there and I had to deal with it."
Plenty of people condemned the Bulldogs, with Castle's predecessor Todd Greenberg the main target for trying to sweep the issue under the rug. For Castle, the facts are that Barba is now gone, his family situation is as stable as it's ever been and the club kept its promise to the people involved.
Barba's partner, Ainslie Currie, had never wanted the matter to play out in public and the Bulldogs had done their best to prevent that.
Castle had previously said that netballers "aren't angels all of the time" and that there were situations that she had to sort. But, unlike in rugby league, those issues didn't make the newspapers as well and that has been the biggest difference she's noted since making the shift.
"The media scrutiny is like nothing you can imagine. Thirty fulltime journalists that only write about rugby league and have to fill 20 pages of content every single day of the week. It's a lot of stories, it's a lot of scrutiny," she said.
It's also often a lot of cobblers, even if it gets dressed up as the dead set truth.
Take Jarryd Hayne for instance. It's been rumoured he'll replace Barba at the Bulldogs, despite him saying he isn't leaving Parramatta, Parramatta saying he's not on the market and the Bulldogs saying they don't want him and haven't offered a contract.
"There is very much a [media] culture of 'I'm in the know'. I was driving down the road the other day and Matty Johns was on his radio show [saying] 'I've got it on good authority that Jarryd Hayne is going to the Bulldogs' and that is completely fabricated."
The cycle isn't helped by the fact that some clubs leak like sieves. Castle was always open, on or off the record, in netball, but has to be guarded now and keeping the Bulldogs out of the media is actually a small victory.
While she's kept the Bulldogs board and staff in reasonable check, her biggest challenge might be winning the trust of coach Des Hasler. Both parties are working hard towards that and Castle is pleased with the progress.
After the interview she produces a text that Hasler sent her following her first day at the Bulldogs. It's something she cherishes and its content suggest there's far more to Hasler than the bloke you see shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot during media stand-ups, scratching his chin and generally not saying anything that anyone can quote afterwards.
"He's a very intense guy, but he's a fundamentally strong family man. He's got a wife and two gorgeous children and they are the centre of his world and he's a very, very caring individual."
Particularly where his players are concerned.
"He smacks them with one hand and strokes them with the other and the players know that, in difficult situations, he will go out of his way to try and help them."
Without delving too deeply into Hasler's text to Castle, there is mention of the joy he would feel in making her the first female chief executive to helm a club to an NRL title.
At some point Castle hopes people will forget she's a female chief executive and just regard her as a chief executive full stop. But, for now, it remains her reality.
"I don't play the female card at all, because I'm just not interested in it. But, from a female perspective, if I can be successful it will pave the way for other females to have these opportunities in similar jobs."
But, with the national anthems about to play at Canberra's AIS Arena, it's back to her courtside seat and to riding the highs and lows of the athletes she grew to love so much in her old job.