Countdown to the Premiership: Cometh the Grim Reaper

The formidable flanker Serge Betsen has arrived at Wasps to fill the void left by Lawrence Dallaglio. Chris Hewett meets a man more than ready for England's challenges, and at 34 still keen to learn
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The Independent Online

The Italian Stallion is history, much to the blessed relief of Premiership teams up and down the land. Sadly for them, Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio has been replaced in the Wasps back row by La Faucheuse – the Grim Reaper – whose stock-in trade is making history of other people. The name was bestowed upon Serge Betsen many moons ago, when he first started scything his way through opponents and leaving them in shallow graves on behalf of the Biarritz club. "You can see why," said Shaun Edwards, who helped coach the Londoners to another title last season. "Have you seen that stare of his? I love the way he stares."

Edwards has been known to indulge in a little wild-eyed staring himself, but when it comes to putting the fear of God into the enemy, Betsen beats him all ends up. He is 34 now, and has the injury record from hell – a place many players, not least Jonny Wilkinson, assume he calls home. Indeed, many thought he would retire from the professional game when Biarritz fell short of the French Championship semi-finals last June. But Betsen was always open to offers from England, and when the champions went in search of experienced ex-internationals to help them absorb the increasing Test demands on their squad, his availability was seen as manna from heaven.

"I played many games for France with him, shared many things with him, but I had no idea that he'd be willing to come here," admitted Raphaël Ibañez, the hooker who led Les Bleus in last year's World Cup and has succeeded Dallaglio as captain of Wasps. "His decision surprised me, but I'm happy he has made this choice. If the club had come to me and asked me to name the one French player they should attempt to bring over, I would have said Serge Betsen. He is a humble man, a worker, but like me, he is also very passionate. He tries to appear cool, but rugby burns in him. Even when you sit in the stand next to him and watch a game, you feel in danger. I don't like watching games with Serge. I prefer to play, with him on my side. It's safer that way."

Wasps will lose a number of loose forwards to international competition in November: the two England flankers, James Haskell and Tom Rees, are likely starters in the first of four Twickenham Tests, against the Pacific Islands, who may themselves call on Daniel Leo, the gangling spindle-shanks from Samoa. What is more, the England selectors are only an injury or two away from recalling another Wasps back-rower, Joe Worsley. Under the circumstances, it is easy to see why Betsen was an attractive option.

At the peak of his powers in the early part of this decade, he was among the two or three outstanding flankers in the sport: not the most gifted – "rugby was not easy for him when he first came into the game, because others had more more natural talent," Ibañez said – but the most effective, particularly in the tackle, where heart and soul and raw commitment are the equals of technique. He made such an unholy mess of Wilkinson in a Six Nations match at the Stade de France in 2002 that Sir Clive Woodward subsequently said: "Of the games I lost as national coach, it was the only time I felt one person was single-handedly responsible for our defeat."

He played 63 times for France, where he arrived as a nine-year-old from his native Kumba, in Cameroon. (Born Serge Betsen Tchoua, he travelled north in 1983 with his mother and half a dozen siblings, settling in the Clichy district of Paris and playing his first rugby with the local amateur club). His last international game was the World Cup semi-final against England 11 months ago – a painful memory, to say the least. Would it not have been sensible to concentrate on his thriving spa business in Biarritz, rather than commit himself to more purgatory with the hardest-training, most fanatically fit team in England?

"Most of the wonderful things that have happened to me happened in Biarritz: I was married there, my two children were born there, I played my rugby there for 17 years, which is half my life," he replied. "It is the club of my heart, the town of my heart, and it was difficult to leave. But the English experience was always something that interested me and now I have the opportunity to learn, to become a more complete player, to become whole. Yes, I have played many times for France, but I cannot say: 'I am Serge Betsen, I know everything.'

"Three years ago, I was talking to Leicester about playing in the Premiership. It didn't work out, so I re-signed with Biarritz. But I still wanted to know about England. I won some games against them, but the ones I lost were often the really big ones, including two World Cup semi-finals. I still don't know why those games went against us, what it was in the English psyche that allowed them to beat us. I would like to understand, and I think by playing here for Wasps I will finally find out."

In last year's global tournament, Betsen was part of a high-calibre loose trio that featured a second West African, the extraordinary Thierry Dusautoir, who entered the realm of fable by making 34 tackles in the unexpected quarter-final victory over New Zealand. (The All Blacks made only 30 between them). "Thierry made my tackles for me," Betsen said. "He had to. I was injured early in the game and lasted only five minutes. Sadly, the semi-final against England was not as happy. We were very tired, and played the wrong strategy. England must have been tired too, but they played the right strategy. Why was this? I am at Wasps to discover such things."

Wasps discovered a thing or two about their major summer signing when they played Biarritz in the 2005 Heineken Cup. Stuart Abbott, a centre very much in the England running, was hacked down by Betsen in a style famously perfected by Ron "Chopper" Harris and suffered a broken leg. In their judgment, the disciplinary panel described Betsen's trip as "intentional, but not premeditated" – an interesting conclusion, to be sure. As a result, he was let off.

Needless to say, the champions have had their pound of flesh in return. "Serge was pretty nonchalant about our training regime when he arrived, but after one recent fitness session in Spain he was left screaming on the floor," reported one senior Wasps forward this week. "I had to tell him: 'Serge, mate, you don't show your pain at this club.'" Revenge is a dish best served cold, even in 100-degree heat.

"Yes, the training is different here," Betsen admitted, with a hint of a grimace. "But this is something I want to do. I'm not scared of hard work: my mother worked harder than anyone I ever met to bring up her children, doing terrible jobs that gave her no pleasure or satisfaction. She still lives in Paris, and used to watch me when I played in the city. Now I want her to come here and watch me in England. A Twickenham final would be perfect. She would love to see me play there."

A force to be reckoned with: The lowdown on Betsen

Serge Betsen Tchoua

Born: 25 March 1974, in Kumba, Cameroon

Position: Flanker

International caps: 63

Height: 6ft

Weight: 15st

Club Career:

1985-1996: CD Clichy (Amateur)

1996-2008: Biarritz Olympique

2008-: Wasps

International Career:

1997: France debut against Italy in 40-32 loss

2000: Becomes a regular in Six Nations side

2002: Betsen is the key man in Six Nations win over England; France win Grand Slam.

2003: Scores only French try in World Cup semi-final defeat by England

2007: Tops tackle count in the 2007 World Cup, with 56

2008: International retirement

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