FACE TO FACE : Offiah plans his grand entrance

RUGBY LEAGUE CENTENARY WORLD CUP: The man Australia fears most waits in the wings confident of wiping out past failures; Ian Stafford talks to the wing-heeled wonder of England
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The joker in the England rugby league pack shuffles his bare feet gingerly across the team hotel's breakfast room carpet, hobbling and yawning. All around him you can sense an atmosphere that tells you that the waiting is over, business has commenced and England are on course for a storming World Cup.

Martin Offiah has remained aloof from all this. Feeling the effects of calf and ankle strains, the Wigan winger, and surely the biggest name and earner in British rugby league, has purposefully kept himself apart, biding his time with a patience that exudes complete confidence in his own ability.

"There's no point in me going through what the playing members of the team do until I know I am ready to play," he reasons, scratching his Gazza- style peroxide crew cut. "That's why I've kept myself to myself. I reckon I should start against South Africa at the weekend. I'm almost there, but I'm not going to risk injuring myself for the whole World Cup. Not this World Cup."

Offiah's emphasis underlines the point that all the players realise that the big-time has arrived. Rugby league has suddenly become a powerful force, shaking off its apparently limited appeal to be suddenly accepted with welcoming arms.

"It's so important to win the World Cup," continues the season's leading try scorer. "Before, it's always been a bit of a farce. It was spread over a long period of time, didn't have enough teams, had failed to create any interest. Now, it's the new dawn, and if we can win the competition it will wipe out everything that's taken place before."

As starts go, England got off to a flyer against the tournament favourites, Australia, by beating them at Wembley last Saturday. It ensures what appears to be an easier passage to the final where, barring a major upset, they are likely to face the previously dominant force of Australia again. England would be well advised to focus on the present, and not the past.

"Well, you're dead right there," the 29-year-old agrees. "Of course, it's better to have beaten Australia, but they are such a good side that they will be confident they'll get their act together and beat us next time.

''I think beating Australia for a second, successive time, is another hurdle which we have still to clear. When we beat them in Sydney in 1988, it shattered the myth that they were unbeatable, but since then Australia always seem to win 2-1, often coming back from behind."

How a black lad from Hackney can even be discussing rugby league world cups is extraordinary. His game could quite easily have lost him to not one but two other major sports.

"Most people now only see me as a rugby league player, but I was very close to first becoming a county cricketer," Offiah reveals, smirking almost self-consciously. "I spent the summer of 1984 playing for Essex second XI, roomed with Nasser Hussain and bowled Graham Gooch out in the nets. Mind you, I also got hit for six by Allan Wells down at Hove.''

Who knows, this fast bowler and useful No 8 batsman might have become the next Ian Botham, but the lure of rugby union, encouraged by his Ipswich boarding school, and then offers from Rosslyn Park, captured the speedy winger.

"If you had told me then that I would end up playing league, I would have laughed at you,'' he continues. "I used to hate watching league on television. It was violent, slow and just dreadful, and we all thought it was a joke sport. It didn't have any of today's colour and dynamism.

"I still remember, to this day, when I was 15 years old, and walking down a street in Hackney during my school holidays. I decided to myself that I would play for England, but I meant in union, not league.''

Instead, just when he was making people sit up and notice, and on the verge of leaving Rosslyn Park for Bath, Offiah suddenly found himself at Widnes in 1987. You would think that a young, black, East Londoner faced with appalling racial taunts from the crowd, and the roughest, toughest game he had ever encountered, might be just a little fazed by this new life. But not Offiah.

"None of it ever bothered me. The racism only made me more excited when I played, and the shock of league didn't hit me like most former union players. I think it's because I've always known what I've wanted, and always known how to get it."

Offiah, now believed to be rugby league's highest earner with a salary of more than pounds 100,000 a year, was not a big name when he left for the north, unlike most of his ex-union contemporaries. Would he consider trying out union again, now that the barriers have been removed between the two sports?

"You've got to be kidding, haven't you?" is his instant reply. "I've been too successful in league, and the game's been too good for me. Besides, the England union internationals will be on pounds 40,000 a year, so I can't see how their game could justify paying me my salary.

''If I'm honest, I would have liked to have made it in union first, but if I could be transported back in time I still would have taken the same route again. It would be fun, though, to turn out for Rosslyn Park again, only because I honestly believe I'd have a field day.''

The man known as "Chariots" - "actually, nobody has ever called me that, apart from the media. At Wigan I'm known as Tin, as in Martin" - believes that players of the near future will not face the union or league dilemma.

"The two codes will definitely come together in the next five to 10 years, and when they do I can see the game of league being the dominant force. The non-committed, paying public will always prefer to watch a league game because it is designed to be far more attractive. The one advantage union has over league is that it is a bigger, world-wide sport. When the codes are merged, union will see themselves as a large, corporate company taking over a smaller business with a better idea.''

Meanwhile, Offiah has other matters on his mind. Not following, he hopes, in the disastrous footsteps of some of his illustrious sporting predecessors, he has made a dance record which, he hopes, Arista will release in January.

More immediately, Offiah plans to sing a different song for England in the World Cup, even if he still hobbles back to his room. ''It's not important that I won't have been there for the start," he concludes. "It's the end that counts. My time will come.''