Another one for the in-depth series, and with his birthday recently we celebrate the career of one of New Zealand’s modern-day greats, Dean Bell…
You think back to late 1980s and early 1990s and one of the standout teams at the time was the totally dominant and formidable Wigan side. A team that over the period consisted of the likes of Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell, Ellery Hanley and the man himself ‘Mean Dean Bell’, who at the time was rated as the best centre come wingers in rugby league by former New Zealand coach Graham Lowe.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, it is fair to say that Bell had a rather quiet start to his rugby league career finding it difficult to find his feet. The fiery winger began his career with the Manuaku Magpies before eventually making the trip over to England in 1982 and joining Cumbrian side Carlisle.
A season with the Cumbrian side would see Bell play in 23 games alongside notching a steady 11 tries but after only one season with Carlisle, Bell would find another home in England, this time with West Yorkshire club, Leeds Rhinos. At the tender of age of 20, Bell once again endured a slow start spending one season with the Rhinos, making 22 appearances to go with 5 tries.
After two unsettled seasons in England, Bell made the trip back down under this time joining the Eastern Suburbs where he endured a more a sporadic time, spending three seasons with the club. He was certainly a man known for his fiery temperament throughout his career, being marred by suspensions along with some injuries with the New South Wales side.
However, there was a sense there was more to come as the seasons went by and this was just the tip of the iceberg. After three seasons in Australia, Bell had made 60 appearances along with scoring 11 tries.
After such a sporadic start to his professional rugby league career the former Kiwi made the jump once again to England in 1986 and this time venturing to the other side of the Pennines, with a Wigan side that was just at the start of something special. A team that would be forever inscribed in rugby league history.
It would be here that saw Bell make his mark. Bell had mellowed and matured as player during his time with the Warriors, making an incredible and influential impact as player and captain. In his first three seasons, we started to see the player he would eventually become scoring 30 tries in an impressive beginning to his famed time at the Cherry and Whites.
By 1992 he had seemingly produced his most effective season to date, winning the coveted Man of Steel award, which saw Wigan come away with a domestic treble, winning both the RFL Championship, Challenge Cup and Lancashire Cup in the same year. The 1993 season saw Bell add even another accolade to his already glittering collection and résumé. Only just fresh off the back of five consecutive Challenge Cup wins, Wigan were no question the overwhelming favourites and for a good reason, blitzing the competition once again. The Lancashire side came out eventual winners for the sixth consecutive time, defeating the Widnes Vikings 20-14 in a game which saw Bell not only captain the side but run away with the Lance Todd trophy thanks to his man of the match display in the final.
His impact with the Lancashire side would be nothing short of spectacular, overall winning an unfathomable six consecutive RFL Championships, seven consecutive Challenge Cups, four Regal Trophies and four Lancashire Cups. Overall making him one of the most coveted overseas signings in the history of British rugby league.
After eight seasons, 242 appearances and 96 tries with Wigan, Bell made the move back to his native New Zealand becoming the inaugural captain of the Auckland Warriors scoring 3 tries in 19 appearances before eventually seeing out a legendary career in 1996 with the Leeds Rhinos. His time at the Warriors will forever be set in stone and remembered by the Wigan faithful and rugby league fans alike as in 2007 he would be inducted into the Wigan Warriors hall of fame alongside the legendary Ellery Hanley.
His influence would not just stop at club level as Bell went go on to captain New Zealand and after making his debut in 1983, he became an integral part of the sides that claimed Test wins against Australia in 1983, 1985 and 1987. He would just miss out on a World Cup triumph in 1988, just succumbing to defeat against the green and golds.
After a sublime career, Bell decided to take his talents to the other side of the rugby pitch, taking up a job as player-coach for the Leeds Rhinos in 1996 before becoming head of the West Yorkshire’s academy team for two years. Just like as a player his managerial stock would continue to rise, assisting his father Cameron Bell with the New Zealand Maori side in 2000. Another seven years with the Wigan youth development programme showed he was one for nurturing the upcoming generation of rugby league players. By 2012 he had come even more leaps and bounds in his coaching, being made New Zealand Warriors General Manager of Football.
Throughout his career Bell showcased an aggressive, hard-running and yet electrifying style that made him one of the most feared winger/centres of his time. His leadership for both Wigan and New Zealand would be second to none becoming an influential figure at both levels. As cliché as it seems, he would be one never afraid to get stuck in. On both sides of the ball he would be a true menace, whether it be busting tackles to get to the try line or displaying is presence as hard-hitting defender. All in all making him one of the most fiercest and competitive players to step on a rugby pitch. A true modern-day great.