Betts and Clarke bid fond farewells

Dave Hadfield meets two Wigan stars eagerly anticipating new challenges
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The Independent Online
The day after Wigan had rocked Australia on its heels by beating the Brisbane Broncos in last year's World Club Challenge, there was a small incident that illustrated just how badly the game here is going to miss Denis Betts and Phil Clarke.

Only 12 hours after such an arduous match, the two of them turned up, as promised, at a launch for the Centenary World Cup, where they did as much to promote that event as they had done to help their side win the previous night. Nothing was too much trouble; they even gave every appearance of enjoying it.

"Jeez," one Australian journalist noted for his scepticism about things Pommie said. "I wish our blokes were like this."

Coming from a country where the game prides itself on its professionalism, that was a remarkable accolade. But then Clarke and Betts are more than remarkable players: they are remarkable young men, whose value will not be fully appreciated until they have gone.

And, within a couple of days of their farewell appearances for Wigan in tomorrow's Stones Bitter Premiership final, they will be gone - Betts to the Auckland Warriors and Clarke to the Sydney City Roosters, for whom he will make his debut next Friday night.

Wigan are well used to adapting to life after vanishing heroes. Everything they have achieved this season has been in the wake of the departure of players and personalities as influential as Andy Platt and Dean Bell.

But this is different. These are players who have spent their careers so far at Wigan and who are still only approaching their prime. Clarke was 24 this week and Betts, despite seeming to have been around forever, is 25. Both may well be playing their last game of British club rugby against Leeds at Old Trafford and, such are the shifting sands of the game's international politics at the moment, that they may be lost to Test rugby as well.

The bland and politic thing for them to say is that they leave all this behind with deep regrets and mixed emotions. That is not the case, however. "I can't wait," Betts said. "I'm so excited that I can't sleep at night," Clarke said. There is a new excitement in careers which, although monstrously successful, had become too predictable to be satisfying.

"Players say that the thrill doesn't wear off, but it does," Clarke said.

It has become, even for its beneficiaries, too easy. It is not the diplomatic thing to say, but both players believe that Wigan's dominance this year is not the result of them getting better, but of other sides getting worse. Both were full this week of the first match in the State of Origin series in Australia, won 2-0 by Queensland in epic and totally unexpected style.

"I want the feeling that those Queensland players had coming off the pitch - that they had done something that couldn't be done," Clarke said. "We don't get that feeling often enough: when we beat Brisbane, but not many other matches."

This is not the same thing as regretting being part of Wigan's astonishing success over the past seven or eight years. "We have been incredibly lucky, being in the right place at the right time and being the sort of players that the club wanted," Betts said.

They arrived from very different directions. Betts, as every profile of him unfailingly mentions, was a schoolboy football prodigy on the books of Manchester United. "I honestly thought they were going to sign me, because everybody told me they were going to, and when they didn't I was devastated."

He played trials with Blackburn - "It makes you wonder what might have happened if I'd been signed on there" - and Port Vale offered him terms. By that stage, he had another, parallel, sporting interest, because a schoolteacher in Salford had identified his potential as a rugby league player. "I was quite big and fast for my age, and I just used to get the ball and run."

Playing for the junior side at Leigh Rangers, he was spotted by Wigan. Already a father and offered pounds 5,500 to sign on - "More money than anyone in our family had ever seen" - Betts, initially undecided about what to do, took his father's advice and signed.

Clarke, by contrast, came from rugby league stock. His father, Colin, had hooked for Wigan and Great Britain and had even coached the club, until he was sacked in 1986. To his eternal credit, he never thought of exacting revenge by influencing his son to join another club.

"It was a good thing for me that he wasn't coaching there when I went. Besides, I don't think Wigan had particularly high hopes for me. If you had asked them at the time who was going to make it, I don't think they would have said me."

They would have been wrong, because, like Betts, Clarke has developed into one of the definitive modern forwards. There is an attitude of mind that goes with their athleticism that makes them yearn for a greater challenge - a mountain rather than the well-marked path that Wigan's success has become. That is why tomorrow's final will be their swansong and why they will leave Wigan with gratitude, but with no regrets.