In case you’re reading this and you don’t know who Denis Betts is, allow me to fill you in. If you do know, feel free to skip a paragraph or two.

At the time of writing, Denis is Head Coach of the Super League’s Widnes Vikings and Assistant Head Coach of the England Rugby League team. From his playing days Denis holds the record for the most capped English forward, captaining the National team to a world cup final with a trophy cabinet bursting at the seams from his time at the all conquering Wigan of the 1990’s. He was also the first coach to achieve the highest coaching qualifications for both Rugby League and Rugby Union.

For those of you who don’t know Rugby League, think American Football meets Ice Hockey. It’s brutal, fast, highly entertaining and involves a level of physical attrition usually reserved for The Octagon. It’s played in over 70 nations worldwide but the hotbeds are the UK and Australasia. (For the sports quiz enthusiasts reading it’s also the national sport of Papua New Guinea, the only country to have adopted it as such). I think it’s also safe to say that it’s a ‘blue-collar’ game. Rugby League was born in the industrial heartlands of Northern England thanks, in part, to a rift with the governing body, the Rugby Football Union. The RFU refused to allow factory workers compensation to play the game and following bitter disagreements, in 1895, the Northern Clubs broke away. Some of those scars have yet to heal. Who’d have thought.

Back to Denis.

With his stature and complexion he wouldn’t look out of place jumping off a long boat swinging a war hammer – an ancestor of the Norsemen from whom his team have appropriated their sobriquet.

He wouldn’t look out of place jumping off a long boat swinging a war hammer

The second thing most people notice about Denis, after his physical presence, is his voice. Part growl, part rasp, part rumble it can make the delivery of an innocuous sentence hint at much deeper, darker meaning. A bit like Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner or Trent Reznor singing a nursery rhyme. Denis never delivers a line with the volume up but it’s a voice that demands attention.

Of course none of the above tell you what Denis is actually like. I’ll tell you a story that, for me, sums the man up. Then we can all get on with following his story.

It happened in France in 2008. I’d known Denis for a few years but predominantly in a professional capacity. Along with Denis and around 8,000 others we had signed up for the amateur cyclists’ badge of honour – riding a stage of the Tour De France. This involved crawling out of bed before dawn; exhausted but with the adrenaline pumping to retrieve our bikes from a storage compound. Not only was it still dark but a cold fine mist clung like a damp blanket on several thousand grim, hunched shoulders. We’d trained hard for months in anticipation of this day and each of us was absorbed deep in our own thoughts. As our group collected their bikes and trudged towards the start line I dragged mine from its stand only to realise that my front wheel was jammed. The brake mechanism had been twisted in storage and now wouldn’t move. The mechanisms’ lack of movement must have been contagious because I also froze in horror at the thought I might not be able to ride. I looked up to see the backs of my fellow riders disappearing into the mist and gave a yell of despair. Several looked back but they were too focused on their own imminent ride to care. Apart from one. Looming out of the half-light came Denis, a look of genuine concern on his face,

“What’s wrong pal?”

“I think my bike is knackered”.

He bent down, grabbed the mechanism with two bear like paws, wrenched and stood up grinning. The wheel was spinning freely. Denis had come back and fixed my bike. Everyone else was gone.

We pushed our bikes to the start together and then, despite being around 40 pounds heavier than me, he hauled his ass over two French Mountains whilst he kicked mine. And I’ve been following him ever since.

Now you get to join in.