Phil Kearns believes spearing under-siege Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan won’t solve anything, with the former Wallabies captain saying the states are holding back the game.
In a dramatic 24 hours, the RA board scrambled together on Saturday to discuss the future of McLennan after six RA member unions rallied together to call for his resignation.
It comes after Queensland Rugby Union chairman Brett Clark phoned McLennan on Friday evening and told the embattled chairman that he had lost the support of the majority of the member unions in Australian rugby.
McLennan turned down Clark’s request to stand aside, telling The Roar it was another case of the states putting “parochialism over unity and centralisation”.
Shortly after the rebels responded, with six member unions issuing a statement of their letter to the RA board insisting McLennan resign.
The rebels insisted their calls for change weren’t because of “opposition to Rugby Australia’s centralisation proposals” but rather a “deep concern about the performance of Mr McLennan as Chair, and the damage done to the game by his performance”.
McLennan, who was appointed RA chairman in mid-2020, has attempted to usher through reform measures, such as aligning the high-performance and commercial portfolios of each of the five Super Rugby franchises with RA, since being elected in the midst of the Covid pandemic.
All five Super Rugby franchises have in principle supported RA’s desire to align their high-performance programs, but they are still at odds about to what extent and want more detail before committing. Only the NSW Waratahs, who like many of the Super franchises are financially stricken, have aligned high-performance and commercial assets.
However, the RA chairman has increasingly come under fire after his decision to appoint Eddie Jones as Wallabies coach backfired.
McLennan has also been criticised by ACT Rugby for calling into question their solvency amid RA’s desire to push the Super Rugby states down the path of centralisation.
Kearns, who was tasked by McLennan to run RA’s successful 2027 and 2029 World Cup bids as executive director, said the member unions had lost sight of what’s needed for Australian rugby to succeed in the future by calling for the chairman’s head.
“People will blame Hamish for the performance of the Wallabies at the World Cup. In hindsight, the selection of Eddie was a bad choice. But I don’t think anyone can cop the blame for that apart from Eddie and the players and predominantly Eddie,” Kearns told The Roar.
“But that’s not the point, Hamish has done a lot of other things that have been good.
“We were about to go into administration, and we didn’t. He got the debt deal and sorted that. He got a television deal done, he got Cadbury on board as a major sponsor, he got Twiggy and Nicola Forrest supporting the Western Force. People are looking at the on-field stuff and not recognising the off-field stuff.
“The second thing I would say is the states are the problem, not RA. It’s clear every time someone wants to implement change, and usually it’s got to do with the states, they fight against it and stop it.”
Kearns was one of 10 former Wallabies captains who called for a change of leadership in 2020, citing the lack of leadership and vision for the game.
The two-time World Cup-winner said McLennan had attempted to usher through the necessary changes for the Wallabies and Wallaroos to succeed in the future.
“If you go back to the captain’s letter in 2020, it talked about people making decisions for the good of Australian rugby and they’re not. Hamish is trying to make decisions for the good of Australian rugby and the states aren’t,” Kearns said.
“They’re [the rebels] only talking about accountability with regards to two decisions. One is Eddie Jones, and the second one is around centralising the game.
“Everyone says it’s a good thing to centralise the game. But when it comes to doing it, they won’t budge because they’re worried about their own power. NSW has made a decision for the good of the game, the other states haven’t.”
Kearns, who acknowledged he had known McLennan since their children attended primary school but said they had not seen each other for more than a decade before successfully working on RA’s World Cup bid, said Australian rugby would continue to eat itself if the chairman was speared.
“The next person that comes in as chairman will come to the same conclusion that we need to centralise our game and the states will block it again,” Kearns said.
“As long as they continue on that path, we’ll have this cycle keep going round and round. As the 10 captains said three years ago, make your decisions for the good of Australian rugby.”