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Opinion

ANALYSIS: McLennan's fatal blind spot, and why his exit leaves Australian rugby in a better place and a worse one

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19th November, 2023
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Is there any Australian sport that does a letter quite like rugby does? After months of disquiet about the actions of Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, matters dramatically came to a head on Friday with the issuing of a demand letter penned by six of Australia’s rugby states.

McLennan was given an ultimatum to resign by 5.00pm on Saturday or else face an Emergency General Meeting (EGM), at which those states pledged to lead a spill to remove him from office.

Endeavouring to get ahead of things, and to avoid further prolonging of an ugly situation, Rugby Australia’s board convened on Saturday, then again on Sunday, eventually taking matters out of McLennan’s hands, removing him as chairman.

It was a decoupling as abrupt and as brutal as Eddie Jones’ had been a fortnight before. Part of the furniture one day, off to the tip the next.

Few columns have been as damning of McLennan in recent times as this one. Added to criticisms of McLennan’s actions, style and refusal to genuinely accept responsibility for mistakes made, was a fear that Australian rugby lacked a mechanism whereby to hold him accountable.

Friday’s letter put those concerns to rest, and then some; McLennan not only put on notice but flushed out and forced out in one fell swoop.

But things are never as simple as what they might first appear. McLennan’s exit, and the manner of it, has also revived concerns about the future of the sport in Australia.

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McLennan recently took to his trusted media sources to outline how his ousting would have a detrimental effect on Rugby Australia’s finances; notably telling The Australian “Spear me and there’ll be a world of pain.”

Since then, one sponsor, eToro has tapped out, exchanging the Wallabies for the semi-invisible A-League. If ever there was a signal of how low rugby has shrunk in Australia’s sporting consciousness, this must be it.

Other financial backers are said to be on the way out, including Wallabies’ naming rights sponsor, Cadbury. Arguments will rage about whether these are because of McLennan or because of the treatment of McLennan. Which entirely misses the point; it matters not because of why, but because of what.

World Rugby is said to be extremely anxious about Australian rugby’s instability, and its ability to deliver everything it has promised for the 2027 World Cup. There should be no qualms about Australia’s ability to deliver a well-organised event, nevertheless, any underperformance that might impact upon revenue, would be a disastrous outcome, one that Australia can ill afford.

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan during a World Rugby Cup future hosts announcement media conference at the Convention Centre in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

More problematic is the contribution of state governments, for example in Victoria, where the current Labor government has been an enthusiastic supporter of major events like the Bledisloe Cup, and a provider of funds for junior development pathways and for women’s rugby.

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To that end, it was no surprise to see Victoria and the Rebels align with McLennan; not to validate his behaviour, but because they are acutely aware that ongoing government financial support for rugby is contingent on the game presenting a stable and unified platform. Queensland and the ACT dictating to head office is not that.

That instability is evident in Western Australia, where Rugby WA is aligned with Queensland and the ACT, with the Force, led by Andrew Forrest, keener to look past the personalities and McLennan’s failings, to the bigger funding picture.

It’s a situation Australians are well accustomed to; the shortcomings of Federation laid bare during COVID. It soon became evident that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in fact Prime Minister of very little at all, and that jurisdiction rested with the states on substantive matters relating to health systems and law and order.

Despite the setting up of a ‘national cabinet’, that united façade only ever lasted for as long as it suited the needs of each state premier; Western Australia’s Mark McGowan and Queensland’s Anastacia Palaszczuk – “Queensland hospitals are for Queensland people” – notably playing the self-interest card at every opportunity.

Friday’s letter signals that the signatories understand the benefits of centralisation and that they do not intend to stand in the way of progress. That remains to be seen.

Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan speaks to the media during a press conference at Matraville Sports High School on January 31, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Queensland believes it has its rugby henhouse in order and is in no hurry to let any foxes anywhere near it. The ACT has a $1.7m loan due which it has no hope of repaying, thus its reluctance to expose itself to any situation where it might lose control of its own destiny and be at risk of being placed into liquidation.

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The smaller states will have felt they had nothing to lose by attaching themselves to the letter, prompted by McLennan advising them that Rugby Australia’s previous commitment to funding, made under anticipation that an equity model would apply, would not be matched under a debt model, after potential private equity suitors walked away.

Ironically, McLennan not being allowed to test himself at an EGM will now be a blow to the kids in Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory, who would have been eyeing up new kit, with McLennan seeking to entice those states back to his side.

McLennan’s other backer was the players’ association; no surprise they would want to stay aligned with the man signing off on their salaries. But that also flew in the face of good judgment and common sense, with RUPA CEO Justin Harrison, appointed to a panel reviewing the Wallabies’ season, hopelessly conflicted. A situation obvious to everyone it would seem, other than those at Rugby Australia headquarters.

Phil Kearns inserting himself into the debate on Saturday was instructive. Kearns’ message – that state parochialism is a continuing obstacle to structural improvement – is sound, as is his fear that all the appointment of a new Rugby Australia chair does is to kick difficult but necessary reform further down the road.

But in a sport where one’s Shore School blazer and sailing club membership too often define the battlelines, Kearns’ intervention did nothing to allay concerns around what McLennan last week laughed off as “coincidence”; that Australian rugby administration is a closed shop ‘boys club’.

Kearns also conveniently side-stepped the contribution of he and another nine ex-Wallaby captains to the current debacle, traced back to a letter delivered to the board in 2020, which was instrumental in the removal of CEO Raelene Castle and board chair Paul McLean.

Daniel Herbert. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

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The intent was to open the way for a new CEO and board chairman to oversee the introduction of a new governance structure and herald a new direction for Australian rugby. That chairman was Peter Wiggs, but when Wiggs cut and ran as quickly as he’d arrived, a fast lane opened up for McLennan to assume the vacant chair.

Whatever what one thinks of those ex-captains, their actions and motivations, they only got half the job done. With McLennan running amok, triggering this action by the states, the captain’s culpability in tearing down the previous administration without having secured a competent alternative, shouldn’t be understated.

Also unhelpful is how quickly this issue has been polarised. Is it not possible for the dual notions that the states are holding back advancement of the game in Australia, and that McLennan should be held accountable for his failings, to both be true?

McLennan’s blind spot was to believe that his ambition and drive to right Australian rugby was, in itself, enough. Enough to excuse his knee-capping of the World Cup campaign, his public bullying of the states, his disrespect to travelling Wallabies fans, his overstepping the line to admonish players on last years’ northern tour, his poor judgment in starting a public war with the NRL that he could never hope to win, his agreeing to spending almost $1m on psychologists for the Wallabies in the same breath as telling the Wallaroos that the cupboard was bare. And more.

It might have been enough, had he just wound things back a notch or two. Shown a little humility. Found a way to bring people together, not divide them.

But that’s the thing when you make yourself a big target. Winning masks an ocean of flaws. Losing amplifies every single one.

Incredibly, offered a lifeline by his board on Saturday, another 24 hours to show why he should be retained as chair, McLennan reverted to type, and sealed his own fate.

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If there was ever a moment where he needed to show contrition and some ability to be able to bring rugby’s stakeholders together, McLennan, already in a huge hole, chose to keep digging, urging state representatives to move against their own boards, as punishment for their ‘disloyalty’. He couldn’t see it, but he was merely doing the state’s work for them, proving their point.

It might be one thing for McLennan to be at war with some states, electing to go to an EGM determined to bulldoze his way through, but it’s another thing to drag all of the board into the impossible position where they would have to justify and validate his enmity, as central figures in a war none of them ever wanted to be part of.

McLennan’s departure leaves Australian rugby in a better place. There is now an opportunity for CEO Phil Waugh and proposed new chairman, Dan Herbert, to administer the sport in a more collegial and respectful way.

McLennan’s departure also leaves Australian rugby in a worse place. There is now an opportunity for states that want to put self-interest ahead of the greater good to do so, to continue to stymie efforts to break Australian rugby out from the shackles of federation.

Change won’t occur of its own accord. Who is there on the board of Rugby Australia with the conviction and drive to drag the states through the process? Who is the dealmaker that the game most definitely needs?

At the end of it all, that may be McLennan’s biggest failing. He was the right type of man for the times. It was just that he was the wrong man.

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