Early farewell for Offiah

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The Independent Online

When a panel of students of the history of rugby league gathered last week, charged with the difficult task of picking Great Britain's "greatest ever" players in a variety of categories, there was only one current player who rated a serious mention – Martin Offiah.

The word "current" is used here in a narrow context, because by missing the Salford Reds' final Super League game of the 2001 season, at home to the relegation strugglers Wakefield Trinity this afternoon, Offiah has almost certainly brought down the final curtain on his rugby league career.

He might trot around with Wasps next season, but the awesome try-scoring machine who shattered records at Widnes and Wigan has gone, never to return.

The wear and tear is evident in the shoulder and ankle injuries that keep him out at The Willows, but even fully fit the blinding pace that made him – literally – untouchable in his pomp has departed, to be replaced by a general willingness to help out in midfield, often with mixed results.

With his 36th birthday looming, that is not surprising, but memories of what he was like in his heyday – like the day in 1992 when he ran in 10 tries against Leeds, for instance – entitle him to be bracketed with the greats.

Those who argue that his defence was not the most impregnable would have to cross out a few other immortals – starting with Brian Bevan, one of only two men to score more tries in his career – if they are going to be consistent.

Offiah in full flight was an unforgettable sight, and there is no obvious heir on the horizon. The fastest men in Super League at the moment are probably Brett Dallas and Andrew Frew – both Australian – while Great Britain's wings in the Ashes this autumn are likely to be filled by multi-purpose players whose long-term future lies in other positions, such as Bradford's Leon Pryce.

How Frew's Huddersfield would love the thought of an Offiah in his prime on the left flank for Salford today. That would increase immeasurably the possibility of Wakefield losing at The Willows and slipping out of Super League in place of the Giants.

As it is, Offiah is just one of a legion of players missing from a Salford side that have finished the season ignominiously. Even with most of them available, it is hard to imagine them standing in the way of a Trinity team with so much to play for.

That would render Huddersfield's result against the London Broncos academic, and what has turned out to be a brave fight from a genuinely improving team will have been all in vain. For Wakefield, the fight will go on, because when the planners talk about reducing Super League to 10 teams for 2003, there is no doubt which club spring to mind as being the most vulnerable.