For the past six and a half years Denis Betts has been quietly building away with Widnes.
Once a talented but tough player, Betts is carving out an impressive coaching career at the Select Security Stadium.
Since taking over in November 2010 he has led the Vikings back into Super League and helped them up from the bottom of the ladder into becoming a top eight contender. Fourteenth in 2012, tenth in 2013, eighth in 2014, ninth in 2015 and then seventh in 2016 – it’s been an upward trend.
Each year Betts has bucked the odds, and with little money, tinkered and rebuilt his side to defy the naysayers.
Last year Widnes even led the competition in the early stages, earning them briefly the tag as rugby league’s ‘Leicester City’. While injuries saw them fall down the ladder after Easter, they still managed to surprise many despite being one of the lowest salary cap spenders in Super League.
This year the unfashionable Vikings have lost their captain and stand-off Kevin Brown and are dealing with a pre-season injury crisis. Outside recruitment has been minimal, with just two players arriving from the Championship. Again most pundits and fans are tipping the Chemics to finish at the bottom.
Before Widnes’ Super League season starts we were granted an audience with Betts at the club’s Cheshire training ground. Engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, the 47-year old is certainly a character. Strong opinions, mixed in with the odd one-liner in his gravelly tone, kept the media honest. Despite his past achievements the pressure is on the former second-rower to deliver with his side once more. He also has a World Cup to look forward to at the end of 2017 in his role as an assistant coach with England. We asked Betts about how he plans to solve his halfback conundrum, dealing with fan expectation, his future at Widnes, the pain of losing and also about working with England and Wayne Bennett. The coach opened up in his own unique but forthright style.
Is Tom Gilmore ready to step up with Kevin Brown gone?
“He’s always had that confidence he’s just not had that opportunity. He’s had a couple of chances and he’s got injured unfortunately for him. The injuries he got when both opportunities came around were like long 8-9-10 weeks, so he wasn’t out then came back in, by the time he got ready again the two were playing pretty well as a halfback and as an out and out half he’s got to be in the side or out of the side. Tom ended up going out on loan, but he’s always had that ability to play. He’s an old school half, he likes the ball at first pass, he likes being able to organise people. He’s a cocky little git, he pushes people around. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are or big you are he’ll tell you and I like that about him. He’s self confident, he’s got a really good kicking game, he’s got a passing game and he can take on the line, we’ve just got to give him that exposure now to that level that he needs to be exposed to. He knows he’s going to be nervous but it’s leading to that one thing he’s always wanted in his life. He wants to play for Widnes with the number 7 on his back and he’s got that opportunity. He’s not 18 years of age or 19 years of age he’s been around, he’s been in this club for a while. He knows how I think, he’s been here since I’ve been here so he knows the demands that I can put on him and I will put on him, so it’s not going be something that’s going to overwhelm him and he wants to be successful. He’s a cocky little sh*t, he is, and I admit it, that’s what he’s like and we’re all better for it.”
Could you move Rhys Hanbury into the halves and play Corey Thompson at fullback?
“Rhys will never play in the halves for me ever again. Corey said the only place he said he won’t play is prop. Rhys won’t come in at half he’s too valuable where he is, he plays in the line anyway but he’s valuable and he’s just becoming a fullback. In the last year and half he’s become a fullback instead of a half that plays fullback so his positional work is really good. He’s been working with Brett [Hodgson], that has really helped him and understanding where to put people in the backline and protect himself and make us look solid, so he’s too valuable for us in that position. Danny Craven again is one of those you’re always hopeful about. He’s not a kid anymore, he’s been around the houses, he’s been all over the shop and I think he’s looking at a point now where yeah I want to play for the team and I really need to put my mark down if I get the opportunity. He’s trained really really well, he’s put himself in a situation in the trial games where he’s making some good decisions and he looks really competent in that place so he gives me another option there. Again he’s not a 17 or 18-year old kid with no experience, he’s played in the Championship and he’s got some real ability in his body. He’s brave, he’s played at 9 so we know he’s strong defensively. He’s got a fantastic left foot on the left edge, he’s probably got the best kicking game in the league, which is always a shame when someone doesn’t play every week with that kind of ability. But Danny’s ready now to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and try and push himself forward.”
Has Danny Craven been close to leaving the club in the past?
“Danny’s been close to leaving for a couple of years now, that’s the nature of where you are when he’s out on loan that he’s going to come back a better player but you’re looking to free up some space on the salary cap. There’s suitors out there that want him but there’s always something just in the back of your mind that you think I hope and I wonder and the reason that Dan’s had such a long-term contract is because he has had that [tag] – he was exciting, he was really exciting. Three or four years ago we gave him a three-year deal because he was in demand as a young kid, all those abilities shone through and you wanted to keep the depth in your squad with someone you felt could excite the fans and excite you. Again it was just that he never really got a run of games, he got a couple of injuries and he went out on loan and dropped off a little bit. It’s the nature of the game, you see lots of good players who don’t ever fulfil their full potential and you’re hoping that that’s not someone that you care about or you think deserves it. I think Danny’s pushed himself to get an opportunity but on the back of that Chris Bridge has played 6 since he was 25-26 and played it really really well. He’s comfortable in that position and you get someone with the ball in hand like Bridge as a regular you’re going to create damage. It’s not about structures or shapes for someone like Chris, you know he’s going to have the guile and the whereabouts to create space and create opportunities for you, so thats another good position we’re in with Chris being able to fill that role if we want to.”
What can we expect from Widnes this season as a whole?
“It’s not very sexy, it’s just again we’ve got to get better. Every year through the town I don’t understand this apathy to the whole situation of the club. It’s really hard there isn’t an element of understanding or trust that every single year we’ve been able to deliver something that hasn’t happened for a couple of decades. We sat at the top of the table for six weeks last year, that wasn’t a fluke, we had a really good squad. We hit some injuries, we knew we needed some luck to be able to make it and it would have been really tough for us to hold on for it for the whole year. We got unlucky over the Easter period, we lost five blokes two before the game against Warrington and three during the game against Warrington and it was Saints, Catalans and then Castleford. We lose to Saints by a score, lose to Castleford, we were 18 points up against Castleford and we’re in a situation where we actually do some really good things but we up losing five or five games and people come back and it looks like a terrible run. But we’ve not sat on the top of the table for nearly 20 years – that kind of thing, beating Wigan twice on their own ground, beating Leeds twice last year home and away, sides that have won grand finals or have been in grand finals for the last decade, it shows the progress that the club’s making. Do we need to be more consistent? Yep. Do we need more depth? Yep. Those things again take time and take energy to put the academy in place to be able to grown your own players with the right mentality and the right ability to be able to play Super League.
Around the town it seems to be this thing that we don’t sign anybody – we’ve signed 16 new players in the last two years. Just because they’re not players that aren’t in my group doesn’t mean we haven’t signed anyone and that other people weren’t trying to sign. They have had their contracts improved because they’ve improved so we’re constantly signing players but we feel that it’s important to retain the people that have worked hard to put themselves in that situation. It’s really easy in some places where you get rid of six players one year and try and sign six to solve problems that you’ve got and hope that that year works. Whether I stay here for another six or seven years or it all ends at the end of this year I don’t know, but this place will be better for the stability that’s been put in place for the academy and the amount of quality players involved in it for that. Do I want to win? Yeah, I have sleepless nights and work all year to be in a grand final. It hurts when you sit and watch it. If it were a Challenge Cup or grand final at Old Trafford, we still want to be a part of that and we’re trying to work and maintain that consistency so we can deliver that. The view that this group’s got now is that everybody thinks that we don’t stand a chance this year and that’s something that’s driving them on because they’ve felt it more than they’ve ever felt it this year because of the expectation generated last year. But going out and signing six players, who am I going to get rid of to create that space for players? Going out and spending the money just because you’ve got money, you wouldn’t do that if you made some money on your house. You wouldn’t go on holiday and buy cars, you’d look to make sure your investing it in a way that was smart. So it’s not my money it’s the club’s money and it’s not about spending it on someone that a couple of fans think is a great player, even if he’s been sacked from four or five clubs and can’t keep his hands out of his back pocket from sniffing stuff like cocaine. They are those things you’ve got to think about, this is a really strong club.”
Is it any different this year because of last year’s experiences?
“I’ve said to the players a number of times the hardest thing that the world has lost, everyone’s forgot that time’s really important in anything that’s worthwhile. You don’t love in an instant, you don’t grow close in an instant, you don’t get joy out of something in an instant. Everyone wants instant gratification nowadays. To take a step back from that and invest time into people means you get more out of it. To invest time in your own personal development means you get more out of it and I’ve been really fortunate here with the board and the CEO and with the players that I’ve been allowed time, and it’s made a massive difference to the whole club because we were allowed that. We don’t want to be in a relegation battle but everyone understands the bigger picture, which is really important inside the group. Expectations outside change because this is still Widnes in 1989 to everybody else outside, which it’s not, and at times it’s a really strange thing and that’s what the players get off me and that’s what I’ve been fortunate enough to get from my board. I can go out and buy the best player in the world if i wanted to but I wouldn’t have enough money left to build a squad. But can I find a way of getting that bloke in, is he going to get time, is he going to enjoy his time here, is he going to be the best player he wants to be here? They are the considerations I have to make.”
How did you find working with Wayne Bennett and the England team?
“He’s a fantastic bloke and all those things I spoke of that’s what he does, he invests in people and the players love him. Whatever perception you get outside he takes time to get to know these people as human beings not rugby players and he cares about them. Even if you don’t go on and you don’t fufill everyone else’s potential things, he thinks those potential things can get better and that’s what his aim is and he wants to win. You don’t get to that stage if you don’t want to win. Am I better coach for being around Wayne? Yeah of course I am. Am I a better coach for working with Sam Burgess and James Graham? Yeah of course I am. They’re the kind of things I did it for, to be able to be around those players and understand them and also know that we’re not far off. It’s not rocket science it’s about hearts and minds – belief, engagement, tactics. Wayne’s got the credibility and he’s also got an understanding of what the game is and thats what I got out of it. This year was a real sense of moving in the right direction and just to be solid and strong in your convictions. It’s just the little things that he does, the game’s different in Australia and what he’s taken out of it is learning something about the English game this year. He wants to win and the Four Nations gave him a real understanding of what it takes to win the World Cup. Jumping in and going I’ve not spoken to you for two weeks but we’re going to win – it doesn’t happen like that. He spends time with the Aussie-based players a lot, his communication is now with the English players trying to get them together more regularly and he has an understanding of what he needs to a little bit differently.”
Was is a blow to Wayne with the Dubai camp being called off?
“He’s still engaged, he wants this to work. He knows about the politics and everything that goes around it. Sometimes he understands that he can’t control that but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to change something. His philosophy was if we carry on doing what we’ve always done it won’t change. He wanted to do something different. We know when the next World Cup is [2021 in England] so what does our season look like leading into that, how can we manipulate our domestic season to give us the best opportunity? For the best players to be in the best shape to be able to go after that World Cup and we can go after that now if we’re smart. He wanted to change the way we approached this year but he came in when everything was already written down and it’s hard to change [with] your sponsors and the amount of games you needed… so it’s going to be difficult.”