Serge Betsen interview: France and Wasps legend hoping to use World Cup to inspire youngsters

Enter any rugby club in Britain and mention the name "Serge Betsen." Wasps supporters will smile with nostalgia and rival fans will wince at the fierceness he took to the field. But there is another side to the French legend, a man who gave rugby over 20 years of his life. There is a gentleman who is getting ready to launch a new project. Luke Pickles sat down in his West London garden to discuss it with him

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The project is "Serge Betsen Rugby," a new initiative to bring rugby into the French schools of London. The reasoning behind this is simple: the curriculum is not there. Betsen wants to get kids involved in sport and to gain a sense of teamwork and team spirit. The pupils would gain a mindset of how to improve their skills in a secure environment and ultimately enjoy the game. His vision sees the project expanding to include other former players who want to give back to the game they love. By using the players who know how to be the best they can be, these youngsters can enjoy the experience and learn quickly.

The Rugby World Cup this year is something Betsen will try to utilise. When asked if the World Cup will boost the project, he replied: "Definitely. The World Cup is [a chance to] show off, which is an amazing opportunity for everyone to talk about rugby, watch some games, meet some players, or legends, and try to know more about the game."

After so much exposure, new followers of rugby will decide they want to come and play, to be part of the team and part of the game. Because of this, Betsen believes the demand will grow. Kids will want to play, clubs will become busy, but there will not be enough coaches. The RFU has tried to combat this by teaming up with QBE and launching the coaching initiative which aimed to bring 2015 coaches into the game in the past year. Player retention, particularly at the 16-24 age bracket, has been difficult over the years, but Betsen's belief that the showcase of top level rugby will draw both new players and those who take a break from the game to stay with it and they need great examples.

Jonny Wilkinson and Richie McCaw were cited as exceptional players for their countries and exposure to these players could be an attractive draw to the game. With the plan to bring legends into the game, Betsen revealed he is in discussion with Ali Williams, the recently retired Toulon and New Zealand lock, to develop ways to improve the sport with the heroes of their nations wanting to give back.

For the parents worried about the safety of the sport, Betsen wants to address that and says: "One thing is getting the player to learn the basic skills of tackling. Give them a sense of how to use my body, how to deal with the contact and give techniques of how to tackle safely. Therefore you can protect yourself and protect others."

Importantly, Betsen wants to be sure that the coaches in Serge Betsen Rugby know how to teach the players safely, which gives an element of prevention to the game. Ultimately, he wants to give the confidence to the children to go without fear. To the children, Betsen says "come and have fun! Try it and don't be scared."

Rugby is unique in that there are several different ways to introduce yourself to the game. Beach, tag and touch rugby are all available to the aspiring rugby player to come and enjoy. Sevens is back as an Olympic sport as of next year and is just another variation.

 

As we discuss the project, it is plain to see how much rugby means to Betsen. In his words, "rugby is a sport for life where you meet your friends for life." And he believes that rugby teaches you some key values for life and makes you a more rounded person. The World Cup is going to bring a whole host of new players. Betsen remembers the difference between the pre and post-World Cup buzz around rugby in 2007. Clubs had to turn players away because they weren't able to take them and Betsen doesn't want anyone to be left behind.

Serge Betsen Rugby comes in here, aiming to make sure coaches are ready to welcome the children who want to play. His first port of call is the French schools of London because of the lack of curriculum. Betsen feels that now is the best time for him and the schools to sit down and write the curriculum to teach the French kids in the UK and other schools how to play safely.

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His previous experience in a project like this comes from the Serge Betsen Academy, his charitable project set up in his native Cameroon in 2004. Rugby was, and still is, used as a vehicle for social inclusion and to teach the values of teamwork and team spirit to kids who do not know what it means to real life. He returns frequently and has had parents thank him for introducing rugby to their children who now love the sport and understand the respect. Betsen wants to have a world where conversations can start with a handshake and eye contact, as ours did, and the conversation continues with the respect of eye contact and honesty. Values such as these are a part of our human development and have further applications to rugby.

With some final thoughts, Betsen did have this to say: "I believe there are some families who are not giving some objectives to the kids. They need multiple objectives, not just rugby or school. It's both that will make you a great person and sometimes we forget that and we go for the easy way. Which is 'ok, you want to play rugby? Just play rugby.'

"We need to make sure we challenge our kids to be a better person. At the same time as they play rugby, it means going to school, it means a lot of hard work. I don't want to see a lot of rugby players who drop from school to do just rugby. I want them to carry on doing both because we never know what is going to happen. The program is to talk about both, not just rugby and sport."

Serge Betsen is truly passionate about his work and about the sport he spent 20 years playing and he wants to share his love of the game. For more information about the new project, check out sergebetsen.net. For the Academy, visit sergebetsenacademy.org.

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