First Test of the season barely a fortnight away? You know what that means: it’s time to play selector.
The announcement that Phil Kearns was appointed Rugby Australia’s director of the 2027 Rugby World Cup bid brought a wry to smile to my face.
Only a few months ago it was being reported – a fait accompli – by Jessica Halloran in The Australian that Kearns was to be appointed the next CEO of RA. Unsurprisingly to any rugby tragic that outcome never eventuated.
The history around this has been extensively reported. However, in brief, Kearns applied for the CEO role at the same time as Raelene Castle. Unfortunately for her – and the majority of Australian sports CEOs – she did not last beyond COVID.
With no permanent replacement appointed yet, one could assume that Kearns still holds ambitions for the role and one could expect him to be a candidate for the open position.
Obviously the new chairman Hamish McLennan thought differently about this. This is another example of McLennan’s considerable executive talents. His ability to manage the politics of rugby thus far have been nothing short of a revelation for the code. His contribution has been no less important than Peter V’landys at the NRL.
This is part of McLennan’s multifaceted strategy aims to kill more than two birds with one stone.
First, its better to keep the elephants inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.
When Kearns lost out to Castle, it unleashed the nasty underbelly of Australian rugby. Led by Alan Jones, the attacks were relentless and in many cases unjustified. Kearns is the flag bearer for the NSWRU and SRU factions: two politically powerful institutions, and institutions accustomed to getting their own way.
The rejection of Kearns was equivalent to rejecting them. Getting Kearns inside the tent with an important and high profile role will likely heal some of their wounds and – in their minds – place their man in a seat at the adults table, where he belongs. The astute McLennan knows that is much harder for institutions to launch attacks on one of their own.
Second, a large majority of the fan-base has tuned Kearns out: his lacklustre commentary, association with the captains letter and the general feeling that he just not the right guy for the RA CEO role.
Kearns still holds ambitions to be the CEO, no doubt at all. McLennan knows this. He also knows how unacceptable that proposition is in the rugby community and likely with the majority of state union bodies. The role McLennan has given him is the perfect starting point for Kearns to change the perception and show in reality he can deliver a massive benefit for the whole rugby community. A large-scale bid project like this – even if it is a one-horse race – will require much the same skill set expected in a CEO.
Finally, like all good chairmen – which McLennan certainly is – they have their eye to the future and in particular, succession planning. Some may say we don’t even have the new CEO in place – why would RA be thinking about the next one after that?
The average tenure of a CEO is less than five years so it is very likely a new CEO will be appointed before the 2027 World Cup. If Kearns has ambitions, then it would be remiss of McLennan to not include him in his long-term succession plans.
This role will provide Kearns the exposures he needs to demonstrate that he should be part of those plans. It provides him with a high-profile opportunity to overcome some of the weaknesses that failed to get him the role last time. Any future application by Kearns can only be strengthened by this experience.
The last time Kearns applied for a role at RA, he wasn’t successful and his supporters never got over it. McLennan, the masterful strategist, will not be caught in the same trap and in doing so he’s given Kearns the opportunity to demonstrate that he’s up to the big job and has given RA some succession option years out from when they need it.