Increased workload gives Betts a sense of belonging

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The Independent Online

For Denis Betts, the days of feeling like an ex-player in search of a role at cup finals are over - thanks to circumstances which are the last he would have wished for.

Betts, a Wigan legend as a second-rower, with seven Challenge Cup-winners' medals, admits that he found their victory at Murrayfield in 2002 one of the hardest days of his rugby league life. Despite Wigan's victory over Saints that day, he remembers it with a shudder. "It was horrible," he recalls. "It wasn't long enough for me after being a player. Part of me felt I should still be playing.

"I was part of the backroom staff, there for anyone to talk to if they needed to, but it was still too close to my playing days for me to appreciate being on the other side of the fence."

Two years ago, Betts was a coach by default. He had been told by Wigan - keen to shift his wages from the players' bill - that was where his future lay.

"I could have carried on," he says, "but the offer of a place on the coaching staff was there - and it might not have been there later." He initially struggled with the transition, especially as his involvement on first-team match days was limited to "smelling the preparation and going a bit mad".

As assistant coach to Mike Gregory, his role has expanded to the point where it blots out any lingering regrets. With three weeks to go before next Saturday's Powergen Challenge Cup final against St Helens at Cardiff, Wigan answered the question that more and more people had been asking by admitting that there was something seriously wrong with Gregory. Since then, Betts has been the public face of the club.

"Nothing's changed," he insists. "Since we took over last year, we've always shared the responsibility for the team. It's like a family; it's not a burden, one member doing a bit more sometimes." Some of the extra work Betts has taken on is to face an outside world becoming increasingly concerned by Gregory's health.

"That's mainly to stop him being scrutinised," he says. "But he's good. He's still out there on the training pitch. Mentally, he's very strong, but physically he's paying the price." Gregory has been suffering from a bacterial infection, possibly triggered by an insect bite while leading the Academy international side in Australasia almost two years ago. It has caused muscle wastage and problems with his speech. After the Cup final he will go for treatment in New York, leaving Betts to take the reins in a more formal sense until he is fit to return.

There will be few neutrals who will not hope that Gregory goes away to have his debilitating condition sorted out with the psychological boost of a victory at the Millennium Stadium.

Betts knows that the odds are against that, but also knows enough about the history of Wigan-Saints derbies to realise that they rarely follow form.

"There is no form book against Saints," he says. "In 2002, we went into that game as big underdogs and it's the same this year, because Saints have been phenomenal."

Throughout their joint stewardship - and even before that, when they both worked under the previous incumbent, Stuart Raper - Betts and Gregory have been fierce advocates of Wigan's revived youth policy. Betts says: "We've been working hard over the past couple of years to put back something that's been missing." For the time being, that combined effort reaches its peak on Saturday.