Rugby League: Betts puts his shoulder to the wheel for Wigan

Dave Hadfield on the second coming of rugby league's renowned second row
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The Independent Online
WHEN Denis Betts catches himself talking about shouldering new responsibilities at Wigan, he winces at the recent memory of what his shoulder has put him through.

No doubt it will all seem worthwhile at his second coming for Wigan in the Challenge Cup tie against St Helens tomorrow, but he has suffered to make it possible.

It all started last October in Brisbane when Betts, playing for the Auckland Warriors but already scheduled for a return to England this season, lined up a tackle on Broncos' Peter Ryan.

He got it wrong. "He came in at me and then went away. I was reaching for him and his knee caught me right in the shoulder," Betts says. "It came out of the socket and went straight back in again, which was the good part. The bad part was that the muscles around it were gone.

"I tried to get off the field, but they didn't seem to want to take me off and, being the prat I was, I went back into the defensive line and found myself trying to stop a try by pulling the man down with one arm."

It hurt enough watching the tape of that moment and hearing commentators who were unaware of what he had done talking about typical English tackling. It was destined to hurt a lot more.

Major surgery involved stitching chest muscles back together and tightening the ligaments and tendons to hold everything in place.

"What I've had to do since then is stretch everything again," Betts says. "It doesn't want to stretch, so it's not a nice thing to have to do. It's been two sessions a day with the physio and real, tear-jerking pain.

"I got really, really depressed with getting up every morning and knowing it would just be pain and more pain - and that there were months to go."

On top of that, there were the whispers that Wigan had not only signed an over-priced player, but a crippled one as well.

The cost of bringing Betts back home is the stuff of rugby league legend. Accurate figures are elusive, but suffice it to say that when the new regime took over at Central Park they were sufficiently taken aback to start looking for ways out of the commitment.

The arrival of Dave Whelan and his unfathomably deep pockets has averted that crisis, but Betts says that he never felt under any added pressure because of the price on his head. "I get paid what people will pay me," he says. "I'm getting what the market said I was worth."

But what are Wigan getting? "I'm a better player now than when I left Wigan," the 28-year-old Betts says. "I'm more mature, I've experienced the biggest competition in the game and I'm a little bit more worldly wise."

Betts' globetrotting has not brought him undiluted approval. There were those in Auckland who believed he fell short of justifying his status as the Warriors' biggest signing.

"The people who count knew the effort I was putting into a struggling side," he says. "I was having to play a different type of game. We had two young props and I was taking the ball more up the middle.

"I've brought back three TVs, a couple of videos and a cupboard full of other man of the match awards, so I must have had some big games."

All the same, it was when Betts reverted to a wider-ranging role, for Great Britain in the Test series in New Zealand in 1996 and for the Warriors in the World Club Championship, that Kiwi audiences saw what they had been expecting.

Expectations are also high at Wigan and Betts is aware of the old adage that you should never try to recreate old glories. After all, the main reason he left Wigan was that he had become bored with the predictability with which they beat inferior opposition week after week.

"I'm coming back to a very different club from the one I left. I can't see a situation where we'll dominate the way we did. There should be five or six clubs in the running for honours and that's what will lift standards here."

Starting tomorrow, Betts will re-forge his alliance with Andy Farrell, who virtually carried the side through last season. "He's had to do a lot," Betts says, "but now I'll be able to shoulder - ouch! - some of the burden."