How would you describe British rugby league? Denis Betts is a good embodiment of the English game. Direct, no-nonsense, hard-working.
League Passport is at the England media session a day after their World Cup squad was announced. Betts was one of England’s best forwards throughout the 1990s, playing 36 Tests for Great Britain and England. The Wigan great captained the English in the 1995 World Cup and also turned out for the Auckland Warriors in their debut season. Now, he’s a member of Wayne Bennett’s coaching set-up.
“Excuse me, Denis?” I volunteer. The former Wigan forward has his eye on a mini-sandwich – possibly a tuna and mayonnaise on brown-bread item – but turns and gives me a warm smile.
“Would you have a couple of moments for a quick chat?”
Betts still looks as if he’d be able to get around a rugby league field. He’s broad-shouldered and towers over most at this media gathering. His short haircut is greying and he sports some salt-and-pepper coloured stubble. Betts has a gravelly voice – think Darren Lockyer but deeper and rougher – and we sit down to chat at a table and I introduce myself.
“Is that Andrew or Aiinnnndrew?” Betts says, making fun of my Aussie twang. I found it amusing as it belies his hard-man status in the game, but perhaps he does that to make people feel at ease.
Back to business. England’s World Cup squad of 24 has a settled look. The experienced core of skipper Sean O’Loughlin, Sam Burgess, James Graham, Josh Hodgson and the recalled James Roby is intact, with recent additions like Jermaine McGillvray, Elliot Whitehead and Luke Gale bolstering the team. There’s only three or four guys the British media debate over.
— Sky Sports RL 🏉 (@SkySportsRL) 11 October 2017
So how was the squad selected?
It turns out Bennett put them through a test of character to help decide, too.
“It’s been a long process,” Betts said.
“During the Four Nations last year, Wayne went a bit harder on them, put them under pressure and in the intensity of our training. It was a chance to see the strength of character and who responded the best.
“Eighteen of the 24 had the game in Australia (against Samoa in May). There, it was about being able to cope with the hostile environment, the travel, being away from home. All the way through, we’ve looked at the players.
“(The World Cup) will be eight weeks from home, so they need to be mentally strong and able to last the tournament. They need to be able to deliver at the highest level when it really mattered.”
“We’ve got a coaching group of Paul Wellens, Paul Sculthorpe, Paul Anderson, myself and Wayne – (we) all threw in lots of different combinations and ideas, discussed it openly and came to the best mix of that 24.”
Betts also describes the tribulations of coaching Widnes this year, having to “fight and survive” just to stay in the Super League due to injuries to key players. Bennett gave him some good advice and kept him “on track” with his own head coaching role. It hints at how Bennett is there for his team.
“The lads have been really confident all week. We came here and we showed that.”
Denis Betts speaks after our 12-10 victory over Catalans. pic.twitter.com/2K7gzqwuyb
— Widnes Vikings (@WidnesRL) 24 September 2017
The Broncos mentor relies heavily on his British-based coaching team for intel and player recommendations, but also around the sport in England.
What was it like to be involved in England once again after such a decorated career as player at national level?
“Immense pride for myself and my family,” Betts said.
“To get to that feeling again – the best against the best and at the high end of sport – I’ve worked really hard to get involved. It was outstanding last year.
“Watching the players and how excited they were about what is to come too. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved with England – prior to last year, it was in 1995 as captain of England in the (World Cup) final at Wembley.”
England went down 16-8 to Australia that afternoon. It is a gloomy narrative of British rugby league’s recent World Cup performances against Australia; close, but not able to win. What’s his message to England rugby league supporters going into the 2017 World Cup?
“Just believe in this group,” he said.
“That’s all you can do. We believe this group is worthy of everyone’s trust and belief. There’s enough quality players in this room and in Australia. We believe we can win this World Cup. Everybody has to put themselves on the line.”
Denis Betts insists drugs is a problem for society as a whole – not just for rugby league.
— League Express (@leagueexpress) 11 October 2017