Offiah returns for the big sell

Dave Hadfield examines the complex transfer of London's newest attraction
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The Independent Online
Looked at from any angle, Martin Offiah's departure from Wigan last week marks the end of the old simplicities in rugby league's transfer market.

The most prolific try-scorer of his generation left Central Park for the double pastures of the London Broncos and the rugby union club Bedford. In a special two-way tie-up, Offiah will play league in the summer and union in the winter.

Offiah makes his debut for the Broncos today in front of what will probably be a full house at home against Warrington, but only after complex negotiations with another paymaster that illustrates the fact that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Offiah and dozens of other leading players have been dining out for the last year on lucrative "loyalty" contracts with News Limited - contracts which prevent them from leaving their Super League clubs without the permission of Rupert Murdoch's organisation.

Sometimes - as in the case of Offiah's former Wigan team-mate Scott Quinnell and St Helens' Scott Gibbs - that permission is granted. Quinnell has been allowed to go to Richmond and Gibbs, who played his last match for the Saints against the Broncos last Sunday, to return to Swansea - subject to them returning a proportion of their Super League money.

"We had to ask News Limited's permission to go ahead with the deal and Gibbs has had to pay back the part of the money he has not earned," said David Howes, the Saints' chief executive.

In some cases, like that of Offiah, News can adopt a sterner line; hence their insistence that Bedford must not cut too deeply into his Super League commitments with the Broncos as a condition of allowing the deal to go ahead. In fact, and despite the numerous delays before it was finally tied down on Friday, that deal was too attractive to all parties concerned to be permitted to break down.

For Offiah, it offers a chance to return to his native city from an area in which he has never truly felt at home, as well as an opportunity to pursue his ambition of winning the England rugby union caps that he forsook when he first went north to Widnes as a 21-year-old of raw potential but no great reputation.

"I'm not saying that Martin ever gave us less than 100 per cent," said the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson. "But a time had arrived after five seasons when there was something else he would rather do."

Wigan were well-disposed towards a possible deal, from it first being mooted by Offiah's agent, Alan McColm. They have frequently sold players before the outside world has detected a waning in their powers and Offiah's departure helps in the Herculean task of trying to balance their crippling wage bill with their reduced income. They also have a cheaper, younger alternative in Rob Smyth, from whom Robinson expects spectacular tries at a fraction of the cost of an Offiah touch-down. That might not placate the Wigan fans who chanted for Robinson's head last week, nor the players, like Shaun Edwards, who despair at the drain of talent and experience from the club.

For the London Broncos, the attractions of having the capital's one born- and-bred rugby league legend in their ranks are obvious - and far greater than those of taking a gamble on some London-based rugby union personality like Steve Ojomoh. Offiah is the one league player whose name would be known in south-east London, where people are still only vaguely aware of the collective - and considerable - achievements of the team that shares The Valley with Charlton Athletic.

"He will be the focus for all our efforts here and the catalyst for all our development work," said the Broncos' chairman, Barry Maranta. "To have Martin here as a role model for young Londoners will be of incalculable value to us. Martin had to go north to play professional rugby, but this shows that the youngsters can now stay in the capital."

The Broncos are also fortunate in that Offiah remains pure showman - a player for whom the bright lights and the roar of a crowd are the life- giving force. True, since he piled on weight at the start of last season, he is no longer as quick as he was. Of his 29 tries during that campaign, few were scored via the classic wingman's route of beating his man on the outside.

But Offiah is more skilled than ever at marshalling what he does have left and can still make the sort of thrust through the middle more often associated with a second-row forward look thrilling. If the Broncos cannot sell the prospect of watching him in action to the London public, it really is time to pack up and go back to Australia.