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Rugby Australia appoints McLennan as latest chairman

The Wallabies huddle in a break in play during the 2019 Rugby Championship Test Match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Hamish McLennan, the former senior News Corp executive and chief executive of Australian free-to-air commercial broadcaster Ten, has been appointed chairman of Rugby Australia.

McLennan will join the board as director and chair-elect at its next meeting on June 15. He will work with for COO Rob Clarke who was recently appointed interim chief executive after the departure of Raelene Castle.

Australian media outlets have been quick to suggest that McLennan’s previous role at News Corp might be a factor in negotiations over a new deal with Foxtel, the pay TV operator which has held Rugby Australia rights since 1996. Foxtel is 65 per cent owned by NewsCorp.

Finding a deal with Foxtel appears more important than ever after telecoms operator Optus – considered the only potential alternative – said it would not bid.

Rugby Australia’s current five-year rights agreement with Foxtel runs from 2016 to 2020 and is worth a total of A$285m (€171.7m/$186m). Reports that Foxtel had not signed Rugby Australia’s non-disclosure agreements raised serious doubts over whether it would submit an offer.

Foxtel was unable to negotiate an agreement with Rugby Australia during an exclusive negotiation period. It is reported to have lodged a bid of A$40m per year during that process.

In taking on the role, McLennan becomes the third chairman in less than three months for the national governing body, taking over from interim chair Paul McLean and his predecessor Cameron Clyne.

Off the field, McLennan faces numerous challenges in the new position including a financial crisis for the sport triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well reporting losses for the previous financial year. In March, Rugby Australia reported a provisional A$9.4m (€5.2m/$5.8m) operating loss for 2019. It also suspended talks over its next broadcast rights deal in March, after Castle conceded that the governing body may need to approach the government for financial assistance during the crisis.

On the field, anaemic performances by the country’s national team has not supported its commercial appeal.

McLennan said: “I am looking forward to working with the Board to rebuild trust across the rugby community, in particular the grassroots game, to our Member Unions and the professional code and I am encouraged by the positive signs of collaboration.”

He was also quick to emphasise the importance of continuing a bid for the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

He noted: “Rugby has a deep heritage and strong community support in Australia, and everyone wants to see our Wallabies consistently win again. I think the Rugby World Cup bid for 2027 creates an enormous opportunity for the country.”

World Rugby meanwhile announced earlier today that Australia’s July Test matches against Ireland and Fiji have been officially postponed. The Wallabies were scheduled to play two Tests against Ireland and one Test against Fiji starting on July 4 but both have fallen victim to the Covid-19 pandemic.