Former Wallabies captain Phil Kearns shelves chief executive ambition - for now - as he looks towards 2027.
Appointed as executive director of Rugby Australia's (RA) 2027 Rugby World Cup bid by chairman Hamish McLennan on Wednesday morning, former Wallabies skipper Phil Kearns will lead a heavyweight team that includes public figures ex-prime minister John Howard and former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove, as well as International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates and former teammate John Eales.
The 67 capped Wallaby had previously made his aspirations to become RA CEO well known, and was considered for the job in 2017, but overlooked with Raelene Castle taking over the role until her resignation earlier this year. Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Kearns made it clear that that ambition was on hold for the time being, with the carrot of a home World Cup now the focus.
"This [role] will put pay to that, to that aspiration. I think there's a couple of really big roles in Australian rugby at the moment and this is certainly one of them," Kearns said during a press conference to announce his appointment to the bid team.
"One of the things that swayed me was the importance of this in terms of the future financial health of our game. If you look at the numbers at the last few World Cups, Japan it generated $7.5 billion worth of economic value for the country, and hopefully by then (2027) we'll be coming out of a downturn of COVID-19.
"This could be a really critical boost to our economy right around the country, so I think that's important from that perspective, but also from a junior rugby perspective. I think it's critical to have our game underpinned by a great financial future. That was really the critical piece to me, the importance of it."
One of the 10 Wallabies' captains to sign a letter calling for "new vision, leadership and a plan for the future" which saw Castle step down from her position three days later, Kearns said there was more confidence in the organisation since the installment of interim CEO Rob Clarke and McLennan.
"Yes, absolutely [there's more confidence]. Over the last three or four weeks in particular there's been a really big shift in confidence in a lot of people.
"I do think it's heading in the right direction, and that Hamish and Rob Clarke are talking about the right things and doing the right things. I do see a lot of grassroots rugby and you talk to the parents on the sideline and that's the vibe that they're starting to get, they're saying to me 'thank god this change is happening, it's really good'.
"The talk that Hamish has said about governance, that's probably our biggest hurdle in the short-term moving forward - and the broadcast deal - but I know in the background the discussions with New Zealand have been positive - fraught at times - but more positive than negative.
"There are some things happening and hopefully some announcements soon around the World Cup and our desire to win this for all the right reasons, I think is really good for us. There are some really nice green shoots there."
Yet to sign a broadcast deal for 2021, players on pay cuts and with the future of the Super Rugby competition still undecided, rugby in Australia faces several big challenges, and while the former Wallaby captain acknowledged the sport was in a bad place, he didn't believe winning the 2027 World Cup bid was do or die.
"I think it's a very helpful moment, I don't think we'll ever die, but I think it gives us the opportunity to [turn around]. There was some talk that we were a second tier sport heading towards a third tier sport. Certainly by winning the World Cup (hosting) we won't be going to third tier, and we've got the potential to go to a first tier sport in this country, not a second tier.
"If you go back to the late 90s to early 2000s, we were a tier one sport, there's no doubt about it, and we can't escape the fact that we've gone backwards. This gives us an opportunity to turn this around for the long term.
"We can't be complacent, though, we've been complacent around events before and lost, so we're not going to be complacent this time, we're going to take this one all the way through and dot every i and cross every t all the way through to May of 22."
After months of disruption to the game through public boardroom chaos, RA has, according to Kearns, turned the ship around and the current administration has received the captains full support.
"I think everyone put the game's interests first, that's certainly what the captains were trying to do and it's certainly what the public wants to see. The way that you build trust in an organisation is delivering on what you say you're going to do.
"Hamish and RA over the past six weeks have talked about giving back to the grassroots and the grassroots will support you if you deliver to them, and the indication is it's heading that way, that's why there's a sense of confidence there.
"It's always what the captains wanted - to act in the best interests of the game and we've said that to Hamish, he's got our 100 percent support."