However, McLennan saw the potential. Within a week of taking on the chairman’s role, he had put together a bid advisory board of top Australian business, rugby and political figures, including former British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington, former prime minister John Howard, Wallabies great Eales and former governor general Sir Peter Cosgrove.
He needed someone to not just run the bid, but sell it at home and abroad.
“I’d known Phil for a long time, and he was clearly upset about where the game was heading in Australia, via the captains’ letter and all that,” he says. “I really admired his tenacity and desire to reinstall the golden days in Australia. It was clear to me that if we harnessed that energy that he could play an instrumental role in us winning the bid. ”
In Kearns, McLennan had a charismatic figure. Overseas, the Randwick hooker and World Cup-winning Wallaby is well known and universally liked. There was also upside in bringing an outspoken critic into the fold.
“Once you’ve been lucky enough to be in the position I’ve been in as a Wallaby, it never leaves you, the passion for the game.”
“I always knew Kearnsy had immense talent and the bid was about how we do get all the various factions all focused on a really positive outcome. That role perfectly suited him, ”McLennan says.
“There’s truth everywhere. [The captains] felt there were aspects of the game that weren’t being managed properly, and they were right. You could argue whether it should have been so public and there was a lot of dirty linen that was aired but, at the end of the day, they felt things had reached a crisis point. ”
For his part, Kearns never saw the appointment as silencing a critic. Fiercely independent, he says he has only ever acted out of love for the game and duty to protect its future.
“Nothing that I’ve done has been anything particularly personal about people,” he says. “It’s about the future of the game and making sure it’s strong. We’ve got some special things in our game that are worth protecting and nurturing, like the values of the game, the importance of respect and how that was formed, as well as the international dimension to rugby. ”
He got to work quickly, although the pandemic and shifting sands in global sport radically altered the job description. What started as a schmoozing roadshow brief, with Kearns and McLennan traveling the world to cajole support among World Rugby’s powerful blocs, ended in a much more technical process.
McLennan, Kearns, RA boss Andy Marinos and bid executive Anthony French pitched Australia as a safe pair of hands, with the infrastructure and hosting track record to deliver a quality tournament and a robust profit for World Rugby. They deployed Kearns to sell the vision. His skill on his feet, ease among rugby’s elite and unimpeachable playing record did the trick, with Australia awarded preferred bidder status late last year and the hosting rights this week.
However, the 42-Test hooker’s passion project has been positioning the game’s grassroots to reap the rewards of an expected $ 100 million windfall over the next five years. In his words, “Legacy isn’t about what happens after the World Cup, it’s about what happens leading into it”.
“We started a series of town hall events around Australia on Zoom during the pandemic,” Kearns says. “We had 70 log on for our first one, and we had 500 log for one last week.
“People really see this as a turning point. There’s already a better vibe around the game and the bid has done quite a bit for that. The Wallabies, in their performances over the last 18 months, have shown a lot more ticker. It’s an immature team maturing, but you can see the ticker and the public picks up on that. ”
Kearns is particularly invested in a pilot legacy program designed to stabilize and revitalize community rugby clubs around the country with a “toolkit” to help the game’s grassroots volunteers implement best practice on their patches, plus RA’s stated aim of growing the game by 30,000 new participants .
Now running real estate company AV Jennings, Kearns finishes up with RA at the end of the month as tournament planning enters a new phase with a joint-venture board to be chaired and run by new faces.
“Do I see myself as an insider now?” he asks. “Probably more than I was before. But after I’ve finished this role at the end of this month, I’m out again. If they want me to play some sort of role in the future, I’d be happy to look at it. Once you’ve been lucky enough to be in the position I’ve been in as Wallaby, it never leaves you, the passion for the game. “
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