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Canterbury Bulldogs appoint first female CEO

Head of Netball New Zealand, Raelene Castle, has been appointed CEO of the Bulldogs. Will the fans welcome her with open arms?

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 At some point during her tenure as Canterbury chief executive, it's inevitable Raelene Castle and coach Des Hasler will butt heads.

So will Castle, the first woman to hold an NRL CEO role for 15 years, stand her ground? "People who have dealt with me over a period of time will know that I'm pretty good at standing my ground," Castle said.

"As long as I've got my facts right, I'm comfortable with where I'm at and it's for the right reasons, I will definitely stand my ground. There's no doubt about that."

Raelene Castle

Ready to rule the joint: Raelene Castle. Photo: Kate Geraghty

There were approximately 3300 applicants for the plum position and, as revealed by Fairfax Media this week, Castle was the frontrunner. When she was officially unveiled as Todd Greenberg's successor at Belmore on Wednesday, much was made of the fact she is the first woman to hold the position since Liz Dawson at the Adelaide Rams in 1997-8 and Donna Burke at Cronulla in 1988-89.

It mattered not to Ray Dib – "Gender was never a discussion, it was the best person," the Bulldogs chairman offered – or to Castle herself: "Being female has never occurred to me," she said.

"I will have a different perspective because I'm female and I will open different doors because I'm female. That should be an advantage."

It appeared inevitable the Netball New Zealand boss would make her mark in sport. It is understood she had been earmarked for the one of the ARL Commission's newly created roles, as the head of marketing, digital and content. The NZRU also had her in mind for one of its most senior positions.

Instead, she opted to work for the club she has barracked for her whole life. She lives in New Zealand but Castle was born in Wagga Wagga where her father, Kiwis captain Bruce, played at what would later be known as Turvey Park. She is a league person. When ARLC chief Dave Smith was appointed, he wasn't able to name a single member of the Australian squad. But does Castle know Ben Barba from Benji Marshall?

"I've got a good handle on all of the Doggies and I have a good handle on the iconic players, the mainstream players," she said. "I'm probably a little bit rusty because I've watched a bit more netball than rugby league lately. But about 10 years ago I was able to name pretty much every player in the NRL. I'm not far away from that again."

She is already au fait with the work of one influential Bulldog, in Hasler. Canterbury captain Michael Ennis predicted the pair would bond immediately over their common interest in high-performance sport. Indeed, Castle's relationship with Hasler will be one of the season's most fascinating stories. The 42-year-old spoke about "earning her stripes" with the two-time premiership-winning coach but also, if required, pulling him into line. "The coach and the CEO are a partnership, and there has to be respect based on both sides," she said. "That will be my aim over the next few months, to earn that respect with Des, and likewise him with me. That will be the aim. I've had two coaches in my time at netball. They are, by nature, interesting people. That's what makes them the special people that they are.

"They do have some unique personality traits. I've got a pretty good understanding of the reality and the challenges. We'll just work through with Des, who is hugely respected in the rugby league environment. That's beneficial, he has the results to prove it."

Castle will begin her tenure on July 15 but must first make the move across the ditch. Her partner, Greg Jones, will end his 21-year stint with The Warehouse to follow her. "He's going to do some property development. We've got a property portfolio, so it's a chance for him to do his dream job while I do mine," she said.

Already, Castle has bold ambitions for the Family Club. For it to be the pre-eminent sporting club in Australia and to crack the 20,000-member mark in a market she once described as "chauvinistic" when trying to strike a broadcast deal for netball's ANZ Championship. "But I'm only three-and-a-half minutes into it so I won't be making too many brave statements," she added.

Some commentators believe that, in appointing a female NRL club CEO, the club and the game have made a statement too. Castle doesn't see it that way. She was bombarded with questions about the Ben Te'o saga, about suggestions the Bulldogs have historically been perceived as a club with poor attitudes towards women. Perhaps, more provocatively, that her appointment was "historic" or a "watershed" moment.

"I hope that's not the focus of it, I hope it's about the skills and experience which I bring," she said.