The stage is ready for Offiah

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The Independent Online
Martin Offiah opens his Halifax Centenary World Cup campaign today in a match that promises what he likes best - lots of tries, writes Dave Hadfield.

Offiah, who has scored in every match for Wigan this season, has been out of action so far in the tournament with thigh and calf strains. Unleashing him on the hapless South Africans at Headingley tonight gives him not only the chance to confirm his fitness, but also to remind himself repeatedly of the mechanics of try-scoring.

"We wanted Martin to have a game before the semi-final stage and he has proved his fitness," Phil Larder, the England coach, said. "Clearly it is good for us to be able to call up a player of his undoubted class."

Offiah's recall means that John Bentley switches to the right wing, thus giving Jason Robinson a rest. Further reshuffling in the backs brings Barrie-Jon Mather into the centres and gives Paul Cook his first start for England.

Cook, the 19-year-old Leeds player, will be given responsibility for goal-kicking on his home ground. If he hits anything like the kicking form he has shown for his club, he could achieve the unique feat of rewriting the international kicking records in his first full match at this level.

The half-back pairing of Shaun Edwards and Daryl Powell need to reassert their seniority after excellent displays by Bobbie Goulding and Tony Smith - both on the bench today - against Fiji in midweek.

In the forwards, Mick Cassidy will be used at hooker and, with Denis Betts and Andrew Farrell rested, Simon Haughton and Chris Joynt team up in the second row.

It is a line-up not only good enough to win, and thus ensure playing the winners of tomorrow's Wales-Western Samoa match in the semi-finals, but to win by even more than the 86-6 by which Australia put South Africa to the sword on Tuesday.

The Rhinos have turned out to be an expensive mistake in this tournament. They are, as some in that country tried to point out, nowhere near ready for this level of competition and would have been much happier in the Emerging Nations event.

Nor, given South Africans' record in these matters, should they have been allowed to come to Britain without being drug-tested first, as were all the other countries. That would have avoided the embarrassment of a steroid user, Pierre Grobbelaar, being sent home this week. That can hardly help their chances of escaping this misconceived expedition without further embarrassment on the pitch.

For today's match, their coach, Tony Fisher, has made a couple of drastic positional changes, in an effort to make themselves less vulnerable. Workington's Mark Johnson, their one player with serious league experience, is moved from wing to stand-off and second- row Tim Fourie is drafted into centre. Sadly for the credibility of this little corner of what has otherwise been a roaring success of a first week of the World Cup, it is unlikely to make much difference.

ENGLAND (v South Africa, Headingley, tonight): Cook (Leeds); Bentley (Halifax), Pinkney (Keighley), Mather (Wigan), Offiah (Wigan); Powell (Keighley), Edwards (Wigan); Harrison (Halifax), Cassidy (Wigan), Platt (Auckland Warriors), Haughton (Wigan), Joynt (St Helens), Clarke (Sydney City Roosters). Substitutes: Goulding (St Helens), Smith (Castleford), Broadbent (Sheffield), Sampson (Castleford).