Wallabies great Phil Kearns has backed Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan’s claims that Australia has the capability to walk away from Super Rugby and thrive.
McLennan recently cast doubt over the future of the Super Rugby Pacific competition saying that Australia would explore options of how to best promote the game down under.
While some condemned those comments as a cash grab, Kearns believes Australian rugby is improving and that the governing body is right to consider a shift away from New Zealand.
“I think we’re locked in for 2023, what we’re going to have,” Kearns said on SENZ Mornings.
“I think some of the rugby on the field this year has been very, very good, the Australian teams have been better than they have in the past.
“I think we’re seeing a bit of a shift in the way that we’re coaching the game and our teams are being more competitive.”
Kearns believes Rugby Australia is well within their rights to explore their options due to “arrogance” stemming from New Zealand Rugby officials, adding that avenues of expansion in Japan, the UK and even the USA could prove fruitful for Australia.
“Off the field, it’s a different story … I was quoted recently about the arrogance that has existed in New Zealand rugby for a long time,” Kearns said.
“I’m not talking about the players here, it’s the way the officials have treated others around the world and certainly if you speak to the South Africans, Argentines and the Australians … they feel they’ve been talked down to for a long, long time.
“We have an enormously changing landscape … you’ve got sports going on their own and doing their own broadcasting, you’ve got the money involved in Japan, the UK and the US with them having a World Cup in ‘31 and ‘33, the landscape is changing.
“Australia has the Rugby World Cup coming up in ‘27 and the women’s in ‘29, that’s not just a win for world rugby but for Australian rugby.
“The winds are changing, to go into that landscape with your nose in the air and being a little arrogant, that’s not the way to enter discussions.”
New Zealand sporting icon Ian Smith agreed with Kearns sentiment, with the former Blackcap adding that New Zealand was wrong to think they can thrive without Australia and South Africa by their side.
“I agree with you, I think New Zealand rugby is incredibly arrogant,” Smith said.
“They’ve made it so much about the All Blacks in this country that they’ve completely bastardised what was the National Provincial Championship, you’ve got Super Rugby which I’m convinced is nothing more than an All Blacks trial.
“It’s all about the players … it’s not about the fans, rugby has become about just the 80 minutes on the park and I’m not sure it can survive on that.
“We are arrogant to think we can continue on our own without Australia or without South Africa.”
One question surrounding Australia’s potential departure is whether they can create enough income on their own to keep the game afloat, but Kearns doesn’t see that as a key issue with plans in place to grow the sport.
“If the current deal is in place has New Zealand getting $90 million and we’re getting $30 million, we can definitely do a deal better than $30 million, there’s no doubt about that,” Kearns said.
“Where Australian Rugby has shifted under the new regime is the recognition of the importance of grassroots rugby.
“If you’ve got well-run clubs, you’ll attract the community and the players … if you have more players coming through, you’ll have a stronger game.
“If that takes five years or 10 years you’ll have a better game, that’s where Australia is headed.
“This just isn’t about the next decade, it’s about two decades and three decades beyond.”
With Australia threatening to pull away, Kearns believes it’s in the best interest of New Zealand to appease their neighbours somewhat, particularly when it comes to rugby’s crown jewel in the World Cup.
“World Rugby mandate that the semi-final and final of a Rugby World Cup must be held in a stadium of more than 60,000 seats,” Kearns said.
“New Zealand does not have a stadium of more than 60,000 seats, therefore New Zealand won’t get another Rugby World Cup.
“That’s a really important thing to think about … when you’ve got a country next door to you that is able to host World Cups … we’ve got three stadiums here greater than 60,000 people.
“If there’s anyone, you’d look to be snuggling up next to that’s so close, it’s Australia.”
The Rugby Australia Chairman has stated that it’s a “50/50 call” whether Australia remains part of the Super Rugby competition going forward.