Betts seeks to tame the red dragon

England's stand-in captain will be the calmest man in the face of the Welsh storm today, says Dave Hadfield
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Denis Betts is neither sentimental nor superstitious about Old Trafford. "It's a piece of grass," is the way he describes the venue at which he will captain England against Wales in the semi-final of the World Cup this afternoon.

It is, though, a piece of grass that has played a recurring role in Betts' sporting life. He played there for Manchester United's A and Youth teams when it looked as though his future would be in football. "In rugby league, I've played in a side that almost won a Test series there, in a side that was thrashed and in Wigan sides that have won Premierships," he says. "I've had it all ways at Old Trafford. It's a ground."

Betts, promoted to captain in place of the ailing Shaun Edwards, is keen on preserving an air of normality, feeling instinctively that any element of mystique or extreme of emotion favours Wales.

Let them rely on passion and inspiration, is his view. We will counter with hard-headed professionalism and cold-eyed detatchment.

Betts, just back from his first season with the Auckland Warriors, plays down his role this afternoon. "I will walk out first and spin the coin," he says. "That's the only difference the captaincy will make to me. We have plenty of other players who lead by example and they will still do that."

The England coach, Phil Larder, sees it differently. "He is being too modest," he says. "Denis has been a great help to me this week. He has given me plenty of advice and the other players all look up to him."

The advice that Betts will give those players this afternoon can be summed up simply: do not make Western Samoa's mistake by getting dragged into a contest to see who is toughest.

"They will play with passion," he says of the Welsh. "We have to play with intelligence. What you don't want to do is to start pushing them around to show that you're tougher than them. They can show that they're the toughest players in the world. If we win by 10 points, that's fine by me.

"We need to concentrate on playing rugby, because we can do that better than them."

If ever England needed a cool head in charge, it is today - and Betts has had one all his career. Now he must infect the whole team. "We have to be able to ride out that passionate storm for 20, 25, 30 minutes - however long it takes.

"If you play on passion, it eventually runs out. Enthusiasm is different. Enthusiasm lasts through the whole match."

Betts' own enthusiasm has never been in doubt. A late-comer to the game, he built himself up from a back-rower short of the size to go with his mobility into one of the world's dominant forwards.

It is a measure of his standing that emerging second-rowers are invariably sized-up against his template. That is relevant today, when each side will have a player who aspires to fill Betts' place in the Wigan team.

England's substitute, Simon Haughton, is often dubbed "the new Denis Betts" - although he never played football for Manchester United. In fact, Betts happily concedes that, at 19, Haughton is ahead of his own development at the same age.

On the passion side of the equation this afternoon will be the player Wigan signed with Betts' impending departure in mind - Scott Quinnell. "He's a devastating runner of the ball," says Betts. "He's a very difficult guy to stop and he just wants and wants the ball."

Quinnell, in the form he showed against Samoa, illustrates the nature of the game. If it was a matter of passion and power, you would have to fancy the Welsh. But Betts' England have a deeper well of professionalism - and with that they can douse the fires. That is the plan - and no one is better equipped to lead the fire-fighters.