This feature-length interview with Martin Offiah MBE was published by Rugby League World in 2010.
TO say Martin Offiah has crammed a hell of a lot into his 43 years would be something of an understatement.
The current-day players’ agent and Sky Sports pundit raced in over 500 tries in a glittering Rugby League career after switching codes in 1987. He won 33 Great Britain caps and a further five for England, as well as collecting four Challenge Cups, seven league titles in the old first-past-the-post system, six Premiership trophies, two World Club titles, two Regal trophies, three Charity Shields, while he was the star of the show as Wigan won the World Sevens in Australia in 1992 when his four tries demolished Brisbane Broncos in the final. Individually, he also won the Man of Steel, the Lance Todd trophy twice and he was awarded a richly deserved MBE in the Queen’s honours list in 1997.
He also dabbled in other sports, representing his school at fencing and as an Essex second-XI player his claim to fame in the cricketing world is that he bowled out Graham Gooch, England’s leading all-time run scorer, in the nets. And, of course, he had a couple of stints in the 15-man code towards the end of his League career.
He famously appeared in an episode of Emmerdale, as well as Hollyoaks, and was a contestant in the early days of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
In short, he is arguably Rugby League’s most famous name. When he was at his peak, everyone it seemed – League fan or not – appeared to know who he was, even though no-one ever pronounced his name properly, and nearly a decade after retiring, the man known as Chariots is still better known to the general public than today’s stars – something that says as much about his on-field ability and all-round charisma as it does about Rugby League’s unfortunate inability to promote its leading players to the wider world.
Today Offiah’s day-to-day life sees him look after the interests of Warrington and England scrum-half Richie Myler as well as, among others, Harlequins’ Jamie O’Callaghan, Salford’s Luke Adamson, Warrington’s Kevin Penny and Castleford’s Ryan Brierley. He has previously represented Kyle Eastmond, Will Sharp, Michael Worrincy and Tony Clubb.
“I was just offered a job basically,” he says. “It just sort of happened! It was a footballl agency back then, but it’s now a sports’ agency which also looks after golfers, cricketers as well as Premiership footballers, and we started the rugby side of things from scratch.
“You can see that we targeted young players. We wanted to represent people who we could help and guide, rather than established players who we couldn’t have had much of an impact on. And, of course, since we’ve known them, a couple of them have gone onto great things.
“When I finished playing, I didn’t really want to get into coaching but I had some media interests and, of course, I work for Sky now. The market for jobs for ex-players aren’t vast and a lot of players are lost to the game but I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Offiah attended Woolverstone Hall, a boarding school in Suffolk, where his sporting prowess led to a rugby union career. He admitted on Twitter in August that the first game of Rugby League that he watched was the classic 1985 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan and Hull, and he went on to impress Widnes scouts with some excellent displays in the 1987 Hong Kong Sevens, when he played for the Penguins alongside future Leaguies like Frano Botica, Mark Brooke-Cowden and Emosi Koloto, and in the Middlesex Sevens. A Widnes immediately compared him to Tom van Vollenhoven, the great South African winger of the 1960s and their coach Doug Laughton, had only seen him play on television before he signed him. Offiah was keen to turn professional, still remembering with fondness the first full game of Rugby League he watched.
“Rugby League was viewed from afar as a great spectacle and the big games were and still are attractive to anyone, and, of course, that was definitely the case with that 1985 Cup Final. That would be the first game that I remember sitting down and watching and I can still see Henderson Gill scoring that try and grinning like he did afterwards.”
Offiah switched codes two years later and scored a highly credible 42 tries in 35 matches in his maiden season as he helped the Chemics to the 1987-88 League Championship. He went on to become the first division’s leading tryscorer, a feat he achieved on a further five occasions. After just eight games (and eight tries) he was called up to the representative scene, pulling on the Lancashire jersey as the Red Rose county drew 22-all with the touring Papua New Guineans. He made his Great Britain debut in Avignon in February 1988, just half a season into his League career, and typically marked the occasion with a try courtesy of a superb chip and chase from Shaun Edwards who would go on to create many more tries for Offiah.
“I got selected to play for Great Britain against France and I think only Billy Boston got capped in fewer games than I did,” he says with obvious pride. “I remember scoring my first Test try out there. But I obviously did something wrong because I didn’t play against the French in the return match against them a couple of weeks later!”
But Offiah impressed sufficiently in the black and white of Widnes to earn a place on the Lions’ tour of Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand – Malcolm Reilly’s first tour as coach. “I didn’t know too much about Malcolm but he was a firm guy and he had the respect of every single player,” says Offiah. “We didn’t quite make it over the hump in terms of winning an Ashes series but they were still real halcyon days.
“1988 was a tough tour and we lost a lot of players to injury. We struggled to get a team together for the last game when we had that fantastic win,” says Offiah of Great Britain’s incredible, against-the-odds 26-12 win at Sydney, their first win against the old enemy since 1978.
The closest Offiah came to Ashes glory was two years later when a magnificent 20-12 win at Wembley, in which Offiah scored, was followed by a heartbreaking 14-10 loss at Old Trafford, courtesy of a last-gasp, long-range try scored by the fearsome Mal Meninga when Offiah was off the field injured.
“Carl Gibson went on to the wing and there was no way they’d have gone the length of the field if I’d been out there!” Offiah points out with a slight immodesty, but nevertheless complete truth. “I watched the try unfold on a monitor in the Old Trafford dressing room as I was lying on the treatment table.”
Great Britain went on to push Australia all the way in the 1992 and 1995 World Cups, as well as the 1994 Ashes series, and they whitewashed New Zealand in 1993, but Offiah never did get his hands on international glory against the green and golds.
Back at club level, the winger was the subject of a protracted transfer to Wigan, with Widnes initially refusing to sell him and Offiah subsequently sitting out the first half of the 1991-92 campaign. In the end the £440,000 went through early on in the January, coincidently on the same day that the club signed a certain Andrew Farrell from Orrell St James.
“The time I moved to Wigan co-incided with the BBC filming a documentary about the club – something which wouldn’t happen now,” says Offiah. “That just showed that Wigan captured the national interest back then and sadly it’s something that Rugby League has unfortunately lost for some reason. Rugby union becoming professional has played its part I suppose because you don’t have guys like Jonathan Davies coming over any more, and that hasn’t happened in the Super League era – players have gone the other way. Lots of other sports have strengthened as well and produced more and more well-known athletes.
“I’m not sure how we can reverse that. There was nothing that the Rugby Football League specifically did to ensure that Ellery Hanley and other players from that generation were so well known. And despite the criticism they get, the RFL are doing things like the Magic Weekend to draw attention and promote the game.”
As for his Wigan career, which yielded an avalanche of tries and trophies, I ask Offiah to pick three highlights from his time in the cherry and white.
“Only three?!” he laughs. “Well, I’ll give it a go, but that’s not easy! Scoring that try against Leeds in the 1994 Challenge Cup final is definitely one. Scoring ten tries in one game, also against Leeds, has to be another. And going to Australia and winning the World Club Challenge in Brisbane’s back yard. I can’t see a Super League side doing that now.”
Offiah clearly still has a fond regard for Wigan, as he does for the other clubs he represented, Widnes and Harlequins (or London Broncos as they were when Offiah played for them between 1996 and 1999, helping them to Wembley in his last year there, where he opened the scoring against Leeds with a great try).
“It’s only natural that I still look out for Wigan but you have to be careful when you’re working on TV – Phil Clarke took a bit of stick after the Wigan-Hull KR play-off game for comments that were probably taken a bit out of context.
“Wigan still have a hold over the mind of Rugby League supporters. There’s no doubt that they’re now back as a major force. Michael Maguire has done a fantastic job at the club and it’s great to see because they’ll always be the big name in Rugby League. They’re the Rugby League name that the public as a whole can identify and recognise. To go out at Twickenham like we did and attract a full crowd for the opening game of the Middlesex Sevens in 1996 – the first time Twickenham has ever been full for the opening game! – was proof of that. Wigan remain a huge drawcard and it’s great to see them back at the top of the game.”
As for his time at Naughton Park, Offiah says: “I think I scored more tries for Widnes than I did for Wigan, and one of the highlights of my career was winning the World Club Challenge against Canberra at Old Trafford. And one of the best tries I ever scored was against Wigan in that Championship decider in 1989. I had some wonderful times there.
“They’ve missed out on Super League a couple of times recently and it’s been heartbreaking for them, but they’re a Super League club through and through and it will be great to see them back in the top flight. They need to go down the route that Wigan have done by keping faith in young players like Chris Tuson and Liam Farrell and not going for just any Australian like a lot of clubs new to Super League tend to do. There’s so much young talent in the game and that’s the way forward for a club like Widnes.
“As for Quins, well at the end of the day, the club have so few supporters that success wouldn’t make too much of a difference to them. They have to focus completely on producing young players, and that’s what they’re doing and they deserve a lot of credit for that. But maybe stepping back into the Championship for a couple of years wouldn’t harm them, and they could come back stronger.”
But despite obvious loyalties to former clubs, Offiah is keen to point out that he genuinely believes that the Warriors were hard done to by the new play-off system, and that he is not wearing cherry-and-white tinted glasses. “Wigan have spent 27 rounds at the top, then lose one game and have to go away to Leeds in the big semi-final!” he points out. “That’s not right. Teams could easily come to the conclusion that they’d be better off jockeying for a position and taking things slowly during the season and saving themselves for the important business at the end. Leeds almost finished sixth, but they won one game at the DW Stadium in the first round of the play-offs and ended up getting home advantage in week three. Perhaps the games played the week before the Grand Final should be played at neutral venues, just like Challenge Cup semi-finals are. It’s the same principle.”
And what does Offiah make of the controversial clubcall system that this year saw Saints choose to play Huddersfield in their semi-final, sending the Warriors to Headingley in the process? “Brian Carney’s not a big fan of it as he said on Boots ‘n’ All recently, and a few others aren’t, but I am. Rugby League has to be a leader in innovative things like this and it has been with things like the video referee and the Magic Weekend. It’s like a press conference before a big boxing match and it’s very exciting.”
With the play-offs out of the way, the game’s attention turns, as it does every year, to the international scene where England will tour Australia and New Zealand in the hope of winning the Four Nations in November. Firstly, what does Offiah make of the RFL’s decision to scrap Great Britain, in favour of England, a move that has been greeted with almost complete opposition from the game’s fans and ex-players?
“I’ve been quite vocal on that,” he declares. “Why limit us when it’s hard enough to beat the Australians? It’s almost as if we’re going backwards – the last World Cup was a bit of a debacle and we were almost beaten by Papua New Guinea. I would certainly be in favour of them bringing back Great Britain.
“But there are other things that can make us more competitive. We need more players in the NRL – the presence of Sam Burgess and Gareth Ellis can only help, but we need more backs out there. New Zealand have really strengthened in the last few years and have beaten Australia in a couple of big finals. They’ve now got about 70 players in the NRL I believe. We have a lot of good players who are good enough to test themselves over there.”
Offiah, however, doesn’t go quite as far as Garry Schofield, another ex-Great Britain legend with a more-than-active Twitter account, who declared recently that two teams from his era would beat the current side. The fact that Schofield’s second string included Shaun Edwards, Tony Myler, Steve Hampson, Andy Platt and Jonathan Davies suggested he might have a point.
“I love Garry and that’s one reason I follow his tweets,” Offiah laughs! “He’s a legend who I grew up watching and I remember his performances on the 1984 tour as an 18-year-old. He went out and performed against Australia time and again. Some players who have done a lot in the game don’t get the respect they deserve and he suffers a bit from that because he’s not afraid to voice an opinion.
“But I’m not sure I’d quite agree that the second team from 20 years ago that Garry listed on Twitter would beat today’s first team, but who knows? The game has moved on a lot and there were quite a few ex-rugby union players in Garry sides, and we’re not getting these players from union anymore.”
With Offiah at least defending Steve McNamara’s side to an extent against Schofield’s opinion, does he go as far to think that England can cause an upset and come home with silverware at the end of November, and is he happy with the appointment of McNamara as head coach?
“It’s like with England in the World Cup – you don”t want to get carried away and start making predictions. Look at the Aussie team in the last World Cup – some people were saying they were the greatest team ever, even better than the Invincibles [the 1982 Australian team who hammered Great Britain convincingly in all three Ahses Tests] but they ended up losing the final!
“I’m not sure about ‘happy’ with the appointment of Steve, but I understand it, I suppose, because there was a bit of a clamour for an English coach this time. He’s quite fortunate in a way to get the job, because Bradford have been a bit of a debacle recently. I’ve got the utmost respect for him but you have to say he’s a bit lucky to get the job, but who else is there? I would have supported the appointment of Ellery Hanley – someone with a charismatic personality who people would have been drawn to, and who won a Super League title in his only year as a Super League coach. I haven’t actually asked Ellery if he wanted the job but I saw him recently to do a programme for Sky on Wigan called ‘Time of our Lives’ and I’m sure he’d have taken it. Ellery with Steve still involved would have been my preference, but that’s only my opinion!”
Another significant international topic which has been debated in these very pages is whether the Ashes series against Australia should be brought back. It used to be played every two years with Offiah appearing in four series – in 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994, all of which were won by Australia with a 2-1 series victory over Great Britain. The advent of Super League in the mid-’nineties saw it shelved before it was revived and won by the Kangaroos in 2001 and 2003, but it has remained uncontested since, despite a bizarre idea that was floated last year the Ashes trophy would go to the winner of the England v Australia group game in the Four Nations. Thankfully that was scrapped.
“I’d love to see it back because I have fantastic memories of playing in Ashes games, but maybe it’s a monetary thing and the Four Nations maybe brings in more money,” says Offiah. “There’s nothing quite like an Ashes series though, whether in cricket or Rugby League.”
Within an hour of us talking Offiah returns to the world of Twitter and urges the Warrington fans among his 3,000 followers to follow a certain @jiff10 – that’s the great Jonathan Davies to you and me – before apologising to Widnes fans: “Didn’t realise I had any Widnes fans following me until a minute ago your very quiet out there – Thought I was persona non grata haha.”
Rugby League fans, indeed, have long memories, but that inevitably works to Offiah’s advantage even if some Widnesians are yet to forgive him for that drawn-out transfer to Central Park 18 years ago, because anyone who watched Martin Nwokocha Offiah from the terraces will never forget the glorious sight of him in full flight.