'A stake in the ground': World Cup bid another step on Australian rugby's recovery mission

Rugby Australia has put a "stake in the ground" for the game Down Under as it attempts to put years of factional infighting, poor governance and negative headlines - both on and off the field - behind it by wooing World Rugby executives for the right to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

RA officially unveiled its bid on Thursday morning in Sydney with the #GameOn hashtag, Australia the first nation to formally state its desire to host the tournament having already assembled a bid advisory board that is being chaired by business titan Sir Rod Eddington and includes former Wallabies captains John Eales and Phil Kearns.

Australia is favoured to win the rights to the 2027 World Cup, if for no other reason right now than that they are the only nation formally in the race. But it is expected that the United States will pitch up for both the 2027 and 2031 tournaments in the hope of hosting one or the other, while England's Rugby Football Union has remained coy on its plans despite hosting the global showpiece as recently as 2015.

But almost 18 years on from the 2003 World Cup in Australia, it's clear RA administrators are preparing to do whatever is necessary to again bring the tournament Down Under, understanding that while the game has weathered the COVID storm, for now, it is far from out of the woods.

"I think it's critical for the boys and girls, men and women, so they can identify with playing for their home country in 2027, it would be a big lift for grassroots rugby and we would get the necessary investment to drive the game forward," RA chairman Hamish McLennan said.

"We're not thinking about missing out, we're dedicated on winning...we're not being complacent, I think what you've seen here today is a highly professional and well organized bid process. Most people in World Rugby think we're ahead of the curve, so we're really committed, not complacent, we've put the right forces in place and the Federal Government has given us $8.8 million to help with the bid.

"Everyone knows we're pretty serious so I think we stand a good chance if we play our cards right."

After a hugely chaotic period in Australian rugby across 2019-2020, when RA dealt with the Israel Folau saga, the complete implosion at headquarters and subsequent departure of Raelene Castle and the very real consideration of complete insolvency and a drift back to amateurism, the pursuit of the 2027 tournament appears to be another cautious step on the road to recovery.

There is no hiding from the fact that the infighting of 2020 has left lasting war wounds across the vast number of stakeholders in Australian rugby, but also that the recent Super Rugby AU final showed that optimism can never be completely distinguished either.

Nearly 42,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium and a peak audience of 465,000 viewers on Nine shows the appetite for rugby in Australia remains and with greater engagement of the grassroots, and improved Wallabies results, the game can again flourish.

At least that's what bid advisory board director Kearns sees when he looks at what the 2027 World Cup would do for an already stacked rugby horizon.

"I think desperation is probably a little strong as a word, but it would give a massive boost for us," Kearns said in response to how badly Australian rugby needed to host the 2027 tournament.

"The British & Irish Lions in 2025, we've got the Poms [England] coming in the next year or two, so those things really building up to the World Cup will be special for our game.

"And it would just be highlighting the international nature of our game, the ability for us to hold these big games and handle tourists incredibly well, so I think desperation's probably too strong but I think it would provide us a bit of a boost."

History shows that Australia has already been through the Lions series-World Cup double between 2001 and 2003, but that it then squandered the financial windfall that should have set the game up for the long term both on and off the field.

Just who is to blame for those missteps depends on whom you talk to, but it is why many long-term rugby fans treat any promises from head office with a degree of caution.

Kearns says lessons were learned from the years that followed the 2003 World Cup and the governing body would this time know exactly where it would need to direct the financial windfall.

"I think this really puts a stake in the ground in terms of the future of our game," he said. "We had an opportunity in 2003, it didn't work out the way we wanted it to work out, but I think we learned a lot of lessons from the past there and I think this can be something really spectacular.

"And I think you can see, I've done a bit of travelling of the country areas over the last couple of months and the game is alive and kicking, but a little booster of an injection of funds from us and the infrastructure and the coaching and expertise from RA, to be resourced to do that, I think would be terrific for our game."

Kearns' role as director of the executive committee was in some quarters seen as a peacemaking move after he was one of 11 Wallabies captains that signed a letter calling for the removal of Raelene Castle, a departure that eventuality came about when Castle herself stepped down having been told she no longer had the support of the board.

There was also a change of RA chairman in McLennan, while former SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos was eventuality parachuted into Castle's role after it had been held by Rob Clarke in the interim, and the game has steadied itself as a result over the past nine months.

While Australian rugby continues to face challenges from top to bottom, former Wallabies captain John Eales believes that under the stewardship of McLennan that having the 2027 tournament on Australian soil can not only be a reality but that the game can also leave the bloodletting behind and set course for a brighter future.

"Well I think he's come in with a very uncluttered mind about what he thinks is right for Australian rugby," Eales said of McLennan. "And you're not going to fix any sport or organisation, especially one with the degree of complexity and some of the challenges [that Australian rugby has], just by clicking your fingers. But he's taken some really important steps, including going hard for this World Cup in 2027.

"It would be easy for some people to say that that is so many years down the track, you need to worry about what's happening today. But that is ignoring the fact that hosting the World Cup in 2027, even going for it and then winning that bid, builds a lot of confidence in rugby in Australia.

"And there's a lot you can do when a sport is confident, having the Lions as a light on the hill, having the World Cup in France in 2023 as a light on the hill, and I think he's identified what are the things we need to work towards and what are the hard decisions that need to be made in the short term as well."

The decisions for both the 2027 and 2031 World Cups will be made in May next year, giving Australia 12 months to really hone its bid and prove why the tournament will be best served by heading Down Under for the third time in the event's history.

With Rugby Australia slowly getting its house into order, cautious optimism that the grassroots might finally be paid the attention they deserve and the fact that the Wallabies appear a far more harmonious unit under Dave Rennie, winning the right to host the 2027 World Cup would prove the ultimate beacon on a rugby horizon that almost faded from view for good.