Rugby great Phil Kearns is no stranger to touring, firstly as a player and then a commentator. He is indeed regarded among his peers as one of the great tourists. A leader on and off the field.
Now, as executive director of Australia’s bid for the 2027 Rugby World Cup, Kearns is about to embark on a rugby tour of a different kind, leading his team on the next stage in its quest to secure hosting rights for another World Cup Down Under. It could prove to be his greatest sporting achievement.
“I’m just part of the team that’s making up the bid. I’ve got a fancy title, but I’ve got a really terrific team of people around me,” Kearns says.
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He’ll be joined in the UK by Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, chief executive Andy Marinos and senior bid executive Anthony French. Bid advisory board chairman Sir Rod Eddington will be part of the touring party while AOC president John Coates, also on the advisory board, will meet the group in London. It’s a team that packs some punch.
“What the process is – I’ve got no clue,” says Kearns, laughing.
You might raise an eyebrow at that. He probably should know what’s going on. Don’t be fooled. That’s something Kearns does. He loves nothing more than to laugh at himself and he never likes anyone to think he’s the smartest bloke in the room – which he often is. Kearns knows exactly what the process is.
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“In terms of what we’re doing in Australia we’ve been right on point. We have to work very closely with all the state unions and we work very closely with the state governments. We’re also working closely with the federal government to make this happen,” Kearns says.
And that’s a crucial point. Perhaps THE crucial point. As reported by Georgina Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, the partnership with government is pivotal. Kearns and Co. are sweating on a promise of around $300m of combined federal and state funding. It’d show World Rugby our bid has government support. Instant credibility.
The list of ways to impress World Rugby, and all the boxes that need to be ticked – it’d make your head explode.
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“There’s all that work with governments here and then we’re working with World Rugby on the other side. There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes on in the background,” Kearns says.
“We’ve identified nearly 80 potential training venues right around the country. We’re working with and talking to people in the South Pacific. All that is terrific. The process bit that I don’t get is what then happens at World Rugby.”
There he goes again.
Also on the agenda, Australia’s desire for World Rugby to adopt the “preferred bidder” model. It makes the process more simple and cheaper and was the way Brisbane was selected to host the 2032 Olympics.
“We’re hoping that’s where it’ll get to. Our trip is to confirm that and hopefully Australia will be given confirmed status for 2027. So that’s a little bit of the unknown. We’re pretty confident and we hear from World Rugby that’s the path they think they should be heading down,” Kearns says.
“It’s a change. It’s very different to what’s happened in the past. John Coates says it’s worked for the Olympic movement. It’s ripped a whole bunch of costs out for countries having to put these massive bid campaigns together. That’s really the thing we’re fighting for when we go over there.
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“I do know what’s going on with most things but when it comes to a vote at World Rugby anything could happen.”
As for other bids, the USA has been confirmed as a candidate for 2027 and 2031. Should Australia be chosen for 2027 they’ll invite Americans onto the tournament team. The implication is the USA needs more time and experience to be ready.
The benefits of hosting the tournament in Australia are well publicised. Kearns reels them off as easily as Elton John’s Tiny Dancer after a couple of glasses of red.
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“For the Australian economy it’ll mean over $2.6b of spending coming into this country, well over $500m of trade and investment, 240,000 tourists coming into Australia – it’s a big deal for the economy as we come out of this COVID environment. It’s the third biggest sporting event in the world so to have that here would be enormous.”
“If we have a financially successful World Cup, which I think we will, it means potentially securing the financial future of Australian rugby for a long, long time. It’s a benefit to the nation but it’s certainly a benefit to Australian rugby as well.”
All of that comes with flashing lights. It’s the stuff Phil wants you to know. All part of the marketing and all legitimate reasons to get behind the bid.
What’s harder to discover is what securing the tournament would mean to Kearns personally. He’s spent much of his life in the game and it’s helped make him.
“It’s a good question. I haven’t thought about that a lot,” Kearns says. Long pause. Thinking.
“After 67 Tests and being the Australian captain, and being lucky enough to play in a really successful era, I’m intrinsically linked to the future and benefit of Australian rugby. It’s been a game that’s been wonderful to me with so many opportunities, so the benefit to me is that the game grows. That’s the key.
“I had things set up for me to go to South Australia and watch the grand final down there of the club teams and award the trophies afterwards and the same in Tasmania, coaching clinics in Queensland. All that sort of stuff which was cancelled because of COVID and I was slightly devastated by that. But we have been able to get around a bit. I’ve been out to Cootamundra and opened up the grandstand and new changeroom facilities out there, and just to be able to see the game thriving in places like that is just fantastic.
“So what do I get out of it? I guess I get the enjoyment of seeing the game thrive.”
You don’t have to have played for your country to get on board with that. That’s a dream we can all grab hold of.
You can hear Nick McArdle’s full interview with Phil Kearns on the Playmakers’ Playbook podcast
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