I thought this was a good interview...

Peter Hirschberg | 41 hours ago

Mark McCafferty is adamant that rugby will not go the way of football. That rugby, as more and more money pours into the game, will not produce a football-like syndrome where teams are stuffed with foreign players and local players don't get a look in. That the growing lure of the pound will not result in English rugby being flooded by southern hemisphere players. "We won't go down the same route as football," insists the chief executive of Premier Rugby. "Absolutely not."

Sitting in the boardroom of the Premiership offices, not far from Twickenham stadium, McCafferty is measured but opinionated as he explains in an interview with RugbyFanz why he is convinced growing professionalism won't devalue rugby and undermine the basic ethos of the game.

But he does sound a warning: It is imperative, he asserts, that "bigger economies" like Japan and the USA be "brought into play" if Europe is to be prevented from "running away with itself" and leaving a considerably weakened southern hemisphere trailing in its wake.

More and more southern hemisphere players, many of them still in the prime of their careers, are heading north to seek their fortune on the playing fields of Europe. Luke McAlister, John Smit, Carl Hayman and Victor Matfield, to mention but a few. This player drain has sparked fears that rugby in the south will be irrevocably weakened, while homegrown talent in countries like England and France will be frozen out by the influx from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

McCafferty sounds unfazed by these threats. He insists he is not obtuse to the challenges posed by the growing strength of the pound to both the English game and to the balance of power between the northern and southern hemispheres. But he is convinced that rugby, unlike football, will get it right.

The ratio between English players and foreigners in the Guinness Premiership, he says, has remained unchanged in the last decade. "Despite some of the myths, the number of England qualifying and non-qualifying players has pretty much stayed the same in the last 10 years," says McCafferty. "We've had anywhere between 63-65% of England qualifying players. There is plenty of opportunity for them. In the total squads of the 12 Premiership clubs there are 320-330 England qualifying players – that's a pool of talent that is involved in our clubs and a pool of talent from which the England national team has to select. And that hasn't changed over 10 years."

RugbyFanz: As more money comes into the game, clubs will buy more foreign stars in an effort to increase their audience. There are those who argue that in football the strengthening of the club game in England has come at the expense of the national team. How can you be so confident rugby won't go that route?

Mark McCafferty: Because we're aware of that issue and my impression with football is that it's leaped up on them over the last few years and maybe it was something they weren't particularly conscious of. Because we measure it, we will manage it. The clubs recognise that we are pretty much the exclusive supplier to the England national team. We have to supply a constant conveyor belt of English talent.

You can't enforce that, you can't guarantee that, you can't say absolutely that's the way it will be forever, but I know in my constant discussions and dialogue with the clubs that they see this as a very big responsibility. That's the reason the number of English qualifying players hasn't changed over the last 10 years. And I do think the combination of that and the strength of the club game is the reason England's won one World Cup and been in another two finals.

But how do you contend with market forces? Do you think that at some point you will have to impose restrictions on players moving to the northern hemisphere?

It's tough for anybody to do that under the laws today that allow players and employees to find work where they deem appropriate. The players coming across to play here see it as a great opportunity for a different experience. Of course there are financial benefits involved. It's natural players will want to broaden their horizons and good luck to them. I don't think anybody would particularly want to stand in the way of that. When the best players come across there's no doubt young English players learn from them. Newcastle have been pretty vocal about the benefits that Carl Hayman has brought.

And don't forget the benefit for some of the emerging countries that the English and French league has provided. It's been a platform for their best players to play really high quality rugby week in and week out. The Argentinians will be the first to admit it's been a major boost for their country. But also the likes of Fiji and Samoa.

It's not surprising that in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia they are far less sanguine than you are about this shift. In New Zealand, there is talk of the black jersey losing some of its allure. As more money pours into the game and players choose club over country, might this not devalue Test rugby?

I'm not a Kiwi, but I can't imagine that the allure of the black jersey is less at all. In England, the attraction of the white shirt has not been diminished at all. Ultimately, that's the pinnacle for every player. I don't think that will change and I don't think the value of Test rugby will change.

In assessing just the 2007 World Cup, we see the growth has been phenomenal since 2003. Just on the financial side alone the returns were up 60-70 percent on 2003. In terms of audiences – both live and TV – the tournament is in great shape.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has already frozen the regulation barring players who are abroad from playing for the Springboks. Clearly, they understood they would end up with a third-string team.

It's a difficult one because it allows you to pick your best players who are offshore, but on the other hand maybe it encourages more players to go overseas.

Isn't the player drain from the south inevitable? One pound is equivalent to almost 15 rand. That's got to be pretty attractive for players like Victor Matfield and John Smit.

With a sort of global hat on, my feeling is that long-term some of the priorities for the IRB are how to bring bigger economies into play. It is really important that Japan is encouraged and developed. USA is the same. Ultimately that's how you make sure that other monies do flow in: Japan being involved with Australia and New Zealand, maybe more frequent tests and the ability to play games in the Japanese market. This would introduce new money into southern hemisphere rugby and prevent Europe maybe running away with itself.

You can't completely fight against market forces. But we won't go down the same route as football. Absolutely not. Because there is a sense of responsibility to the game as a whole. And because we need southern hemisphere rugby to be strong.

The north-south imbalance, though, could also emerge on the club level, with competitions like the Heineken Cup becoming increasingly strong and the Super 14 becoming less competitive and losing its attraction.

We don't have the travel issue. People have to remember how far the southern hemisphere players have to travel to compete at Test level and Super 14 level. It works to our advantage that the furthest the players have to go is a couple of hours into France and Italy. It's not even the same as going from coast to coast in Australia. I don't know what the answers are for them, but that's certainly got to play a role.

How do you increase the money and the wealth in the southern hemisphere game? That leads you to saying, from an IRB point of view, that Japan would be a very high priority and the United States. Maybe Argentina should ultimately go north toward the States and Canada. Japan more naturally belongs in SANZAR. Because you've got to have some significant concerns about this player welfare issue… the amount of traveling they're doing in the southern hemisphere. That's one of the reasons why you're getting players coming north.

Are you in favour of the new rules that are being introduced into the game?

You would have to be in favour of anything which encourages the ball being in play longer and speeding up the game. Because we have to continue to make our product attractive to audiences. We have to attract new people into the sport in an increasingly competitive arena where people have got lots of choices about what they do with their leisure time.

So you feel rugby is in trouble and therefore we need the law changes to make it more entertaining?

No, not at all. The interest in the World Cup was massive. I think inside the game we get a bit purist at times and forget what the figures are telling us about how many people are interested. We shouldn't over-analyse that. There is an attractive product there. However, as administrators in the game you've always got to keep your eye on how you continue to make your sport more attractive to watch than others, because ultimately we're competing for limited audience attention and limited dollars.

Which of the law changes would you adopt?

We want to make sure rugby remains a game that is open to all shapes and sizes. That what you don't have is a set of laws that produces homogenous 20-stone, 6ft10 giants.

So you would support the rule whereby the backs have to stand five metres from the scrum? Or limiting the option for passing back into the 22?

Yes. And things which maybe encourage more tapped penalties rather than kicked penalties. On the other hand, where we would be very cautious is anything that depowered the scrum. It's a defining feature of the sport. That's where you have to be careful. It is a physically tough contact sport and that's part of the attraction for people. If you take distinguishing characteristics out of your sport then you risk becoming samey with other sports. That's dangerous ground. There are very specific reasons why people love rugby and some of those are based around the attraction of the intensity and physicality of rugby.

Lineouts are probably one of the most athletic elements of our game. The site of a catcher being lifted into the air is one of the most athletic images of our sport. You look at how many photographs are published in newspapers of a soaring catcher. It's a beautiful aspect of the athletic side of rugby.

What about the use of the TMO?

Rugby is a difficult sport to watch. It's a very technical game. It would be good if we could find ways of explaining decisions during a game. In the NFL the referee will pause and actually address the crowd. That may not be right for rugby, but as a consequence people know what decision is being made and why it's being made.

We're reasonably close to that, with the mikeing of the ref. And the use of the big screens. But bringing the crowd into it is very important. We don't have the big screens at every club game yet. It's important we go down that route. Because the drama of decision-making is part of the whole experience. Think how many times in that whole drama in the World Cup final, whether [Cueto's] foot was in touch or not – which I don't think it was (grinning).

The media often refers to you as one of the strongmen of UK rugby…

That's one of the adjectives used!

How do you relate to that description of yourself?

You need a fairly thick skin in these jobs. But, if strong means purposeful and having a vision and a view of what can be positive for the game, not only for English clubs… I personally have to find a balance always between what's good for my constituents and what's good for the national game. Sometimes those things aren't always in harmony.

Rugby's got a massive opportunity. We tend to get inward-looking about what's wrong with the game. But if you stand back, I think for most of the public rugby's still got a fantastic reputation. People love the fact that it's a physically intense and high-contact sport but the values and the ethos of the game are still so strong. The players have to play their part in that, especially as the game has gone increasingly professional and there is more money around. That's one of the problems with football in this country. People can't relate anymore to the players. One of the great joys about rugby is that the supporters still relate absolutely to the players.

One of the rules we have in rugby that is absolutely essential to the ethos of the game, which other sports envy, is the marching of players 10 metres back. If you are talking back or something. Imagine what impact that would have on football, in terms of trying to manage this ever-deteriorating dynamic between the player and the referee in that sport.

So I think rugby is in a great position and I've been much quoted – and it will probably come back to bite me – as saying that it could be the beginning of a golden era for rugby. If we get it right.

Premiership boss: Rugby will not go same way as football