New boys count on win-only Betts

Dave Hadfield talks to the British vice-captain returning to his learning ground
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The Independent Online
DENIS BETTS is too young to play the role of elder statesman with any conviction, but nobody is better equipped to tell his Great Britain team-mates what to expect on the tour which first touches ground in the southern hemisphere today.

Betts, a vastly experienced 27-year-old, made no secret of his disappointment when he was passed over for the tour captaincy. He has had his say about that, however, and will now concentrate on helping Andy Farrell, once his protege at Wigan, lead his squad into what, for the majority of them, is the unknown.

It was in Papua New Guinea, where Great Britain play their first two matches this week, that Betts first established himself as a Test player six years ago. It is the spirit of that tour that he will try to recreate in his job as vice-captain this time.

Just as they have this week, Great Britain flew out then with a young and relatively inexperienced squad. "It turned out to be a very significant tour," Betts recalls. "Players came back from that tour and formed the basis of the Test team for the next four or five years. That is what young players like Paul Sculthorpe, Adrian Morley and David Bradbury have to strive for this time."

It is revealing that Betts names three up-and-coming back-rowers, because he won his right to automatic selection in that department of the team after his displays on tour six years ago. That hard-earned status inevitably made it hard for him to accept that he was being asked to stand down as captain after leading England in the World Cup last year.

"After that, two tours and almost 30 Tests, I thought it might be the natural progression," he says. "But I've been out of the country and Andy Farrell has obviously done a very good job as captain. We've talked about it and I'll be giving him all the help I can."

Although Betts will also be able to prepare his team-mates for the extreme conditions they can expect in Papua New Guinea, his expertise will become truly invaluable when the party reaches New Zealand - via Fiji - next month. He has just finished his second season with the Auckland Warriors and no Englishman knows the New Zealand scene better than he does.

"The New Zealand coach, Frank Endacott, is also the Warriors' reserve grade coach and I know how much he wants to win this series. We've had a bit of a laugh about it and I even tried to smuggle out a few of the tapes he has had made of his likely Test players - but he caught me."

On his return to England, with his wife and nine-week-old daughter - a perfect excuse to withdraw from the tour had he wanted to - Betts has been able to convey plenty of information about the potential strength of the Kiwi side.

"They will be tougher than they have been for a long time, so it is going to be a very, very difficult series for us. But in 1990, nobody gave us any chance in New Zealand and we won that series. The most important thing on that tour was the team spirit that we created. We've got to pull this squad together in the same way. The only way you get through a tour like this successfully is to make everyone feel that they are all in it together."

It is there that Betts believes that the tour coach, Phil Larder, another who has trodden this route before, has a crucial part to play. "He is a better coach now than he was as an assistant. I think he has mellowed a bit now; he knows when to take his foot off the gas and when you need a bit of pushing."

With an able lieutenant like Betts to add the weight of his experience to the push, there is a comforting sense that a potentially problematic tour is already moving in the right direction.

Tour dates and squad

25 September: Highlands (Mt Hagen); 28 September: Papua New Guinea (Lae); 2 October: Fiji President's XIII (Nadi); 5 October: Fiji (Nadi); 10 October: Lion Red XIII (Auckland); 15 October: NZ XIII (Wellington); 18 October: First Test: New Zealand (Auckland); 22 October: NZ Maori (Whangarei); 25 October: Second Test: New Zealand (Palmerston North); 1 November: Third Test: New Zealand (Christchurch).

Backs: J Critchley (Keighley), B Goulding (St Helens), K Hammond (St Helens), I Harris (Warrington), J Hayes (St Helens), A Hunte (St Helens), S Prescott (St Helens), D Powell (Keighley), K Radlinski (Wigan), J Roper (Warrington), K Senior (Sheffield), T Smith (Castleford), S Spruce (Bradford), A Sullivan (St Helens), T Tollett (London).

Forwards: D Betts (Auckland Warriors), D Bradbury (Oldham), P Broadbent (Sheffield), M Cassidy (Wigan), K Cunningham (St Helens), B Dwyer (Bradford), A Farrell (Wigan, capt), N Harmon (Leeds), C Joynt (St Helens), B McDermott (Bradford), B-J Mather (Perth Western Reds), S Molloy (Featherstone), A Morley (Leeds), T O'Connor (Wigan), R Phillips (Workington), P Sculthorpe (Warrington), J Lowes (Bradford).