'His heart is still with Australia and we would love to have him'
Phil Kearns has told RugbyPass the reasons why he would love England boss Eddie Jones to have some role to play for Australia when they host the 2027 World Cup. It was Thursday in Dublin when World Rugby confirmed that the bid directed by Kearns to host the finals in five years’ time had been successful.
The 54-year-old, a twice winner of the tournament as a Wallabies hooker in 1991 and 1999, was naturally elated and before he headed off into the Irish evening for a celebration with other members of the travelling Australian entourage, he took some time out to shoot the breeze with RugbyPass on numerous topics – including why he feels Jones would have so much to offer back home.
This is just Kearns thinking out loud, mind, as he insisted he hadn’t spoken to Jones about what he might have up his sleeve. The biggest stumbling block, naturally, is that the Wallabies’ 2003 World Cup final coach currently has a massive job on his plate – leading England at the 2023 finals in France.
But after that, who knows? One thing certain, though, is the level of enthusiasm that Kearns has for his fellow former hooker who will be 67 by the time the finals are hosted by Australia. “No, not at the moment,” said Kearns when asked by RugbyPass if he had directly been in recent contact with Jones. “Eddie has got a job until next year.”
But why does Kearns want Jones back in Australia in some capacity? “Eddie has got an amazing coaching brain and the motivation for Eddie all the way along is to improve the individual performance of a player and then that rolls into your team. That is a great motivation to have.
“Everyone wants to come out the other side of something having improved. No one wants to go backwards and that is a great driver from Eddie. He has done an amazing job with England, he did a great job with Australia over the years and he is a person who has also grown and I think it would be great. His heart is still with Australia and we would love to have him.
“This isn’t just me but other people in Australia have mentioned the same thing. He does have a reputation as being hard but he has also got a reputation of being a great coach.”
Kearns wouldn’t stop there either when it comes to re-connecting high profile figures from the past with Wallabies rugby. Aside from Jones, the names of the estranged Ewen McKenzie and the elderly Bob Dywer also came in for mention in the Dublin Convention Centre, the scene of Australia’s biggest rugby win for quite some time.
“There have been a few people in Australian rugby who have been disenchanted with what happened. You only have to look at Ewen McKenzie, who was an amazing coach, and he has just been lost to the game. Hopefully, something like the World Cup will bring him back involved in some way and there are others we can also utilise. I know Bob Dwyer is getting on in years but he hasn’t lost his rugby brain so to re-engage with people like that is great for Australian rugby.”
Proudly decked out in a green and gold scarf, Kearns had a glint in his eye when asked how he would be celebrating Australia’s successful 2027 bid in a city he came to know very well during the finals of 1991 and 1999 as his Wallabies played a number of matches in Ireland, including putting one over Sean Fitzpatrick’s All Blacks in a Lansdowne Road semi-final 31 years ago. “I might just have a wee pint of Guinness. Just the one,” he quipped with a chuckle.
More seriously, though, he would be raising a glass to better times ahead following a deluge of negativity that had sucked Australian rugby into a governance abyss. So fed up was Kearns that he was one of eleven ex-Wallabies captains who wrote a letter to Rugby Australia outlining concerns over how the game was being administered. Change has since happened at the top and his hope now is that the winning 2027 RWC bid will accelerate even more rapid progress.
“There has been too much negativity and now it has got to stop. The positive stuff we have had out of Australia the last couple of hours since the announcement has been incredible. The Prime Minister is tweeting, the Harbour Bridge has been lit up green and gold, it has just been incredible. I have had a whole bunch of texts from people I haven’t heard from for years and years and that is re-engagement with the game. Ex-teammates, ex-guys I went to school with, everyone. It has just been incredible.”
Why, though, did the sport in Australia lose its way? Everyone who visited the country for the 2003 finals just two years after a brilliant Lions tour was held there would have come away believing that rugby was thriving and would locally capture hearts and minds for many years after that, but this wasn’t how it panned out.
“There were a couple (of issues),” suggested Kearns when asked why this momentum of the early noughties was wasted. “Certainly the governance of our game was not in the best interests of the game, so our spoils from the success of the last World Cup were squandered and the stakes essentially took the money because they were the makeup of Australian rugby. They wanted it and it went to waste.
“Now the structure of the game has changed and the plan is to have a fund set up and that fund can be spent far more wisely than just giving it away. So I think that was one of the issues. We didn’t embrace and didn’t handle professionalism as well as we possibly could have.
“So the early part of professionalism wasn’t good for us and quite frankly the administration of the game over the last 15 to 20 years both at board level and to a degree at executive level hasn’t been to the standard that is required and we probably went down a too corporate path rather than having rugby people running the game.
“So there is a number of factors and it has led to the lack of performance of our national team and if your national team isn’t winning week in and week out, particularly against New Zealand, then that is part of the fault but there is a whole bunch of things. We have got rugby people back in charge now and that makes a huge difference.”
It was August 2020, with Fox poised to wrap up covering Wallabies Test matches after 25 years broadcasting the sport in Australia, that Kearns swapped the mic in the commentary booth to become Rugby Australia’s executive director for the 2027 World Cup bid. Firing off criticism of the authorities had been a regular occurrence for him prior to that but it got to the stage where he realised that he needed to get involved to help encourage change.
“I love the game and I want the game to thrive. I encouraged some change and luckily we are in the situation we are in now and I have never been more positive about Australian rugby and the ability for it to come back from where it was. We have an incredibly competitive sports environment, Aussie rules, rugby league and soccer.
“It’s a competitive environment and you have to be at the top of your game and you can only be at the top of your game when you have people who are emotionally connected to the game and it is not just a business for them, it is more than that. That is the way the grassroots gets involved again and grows again and that is what we are aiming to do.
“There has been collaboration with our state and federal governments internally and with our internal unions, the state unions and right down in some level into club levels. There has also been collaboration with World Rugby very strongly. We have had a regular weekly phone call with them and more literally for the last 15 to 18 months.
“So we have got great relationships with World Rugby and we have also been collaborating with the US and the French, one World Cup leading into another. We certainly will look to engage with the English as well on the women’s World Cup side of things as to how we can play our role in growing the game not just in Australia and South Pacific but globally.”
That’s a positive message very different from the damaging turmoil of just two years ago.
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