Australian rugby risks becoming a "third tier" sport if it fails to win hosting rights for the 2027 World Cup, two-time tournament winner Phil Kearns said Wednesday after being appointed to lead the bid campaign.
Kearns, who won the showcase tournament in 1991 and 1999 during a 67-Test career, said he was "enormously excited" to be named executive director of the bid by Rugby Australia.
"There's a couple of really big roles in Australian rugby at the moment and this is certainly one of them," the former Wallabies skipper told reporters in a video conference.
Kearns said hosting the 2027 tournament could be "transformational" for rugby in Australia, which is currently struggling with financial difficulties, the Wallabies' slide to seventh in the world rankings, and bitter infighting.
He offered an unflinching assessment of rugby's standing in Australia, where it faces fierce competition from rival codes such as rugby league and Aussie rules.
"There was some talk that we're a second-tier sport heading towards (becoming) a third-tier sport," he said.
"By winning this, it gives us the opportunity that we won't go to third-tier... if you go back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were a tier-one sport in this country.
"We can't escape the fact that we've gone backwards. This gives us an opportunity to turn that around for the long term."
Kearns has been an outspoken critic of the game's administrators in recent years and had considered applying for the position of Rugby Australia chief executive after New Zealander Raelene Castle quit the role in April.
- No complacency' -
But he said hosting the 2027 tournament was so important for the code's future in Australia that he shelved his leadership ambitions to promote the bid.
"The financial windfall it would bring would spark the Australian economy as we rebuild from the impact of COVID-19 and then gives us the opportunity to invest back into the grassroots," he said.
Kearns, 53, will work on the bid with an advisory board that includes his ex-teammate John Eales and former prime minister John Howard.
Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan said Kearns had an "impeccable international reputation" and would use his extensive contacts throughout the game to boost Australia's bid.
"As part of his role, Phil will spend time overseas to be a key contact with the World Rugby member unions, to showcase our bid and to highlight why we would be a tremendous host in 2027," McLennan added.
Australia jointly held the inaugural World Cup in 1987 alongside New Zealand, and took sole hosting duties in 2003.
It is considered the front runner for 2027, with World Rugby set to make a decision in May 2022.
Argentina pulled out of the running earlier this year and the only other country to publicly express interest is Russia, although -- with France hosting in 2023 -- there would probably be resistance to holding back-to-back tournaments in Europe.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper has also canvassed the prospect of the United States launching a bid, despite USA Rugby filing for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Phil Kearns in action during the 1999 Rugby World Cup, which the Wallabies won