During his playing career, all Denis Betts knew was success. But when he took over as Head Coach at Championship Widnes, he faced an uphill battle to return the former world champions back to the heights of the past.
Salford-born Betts made his professional debut in the 1980s for a Wigan side who utterly dominated rugby league at the time winning consecutive League Titles, Premierships and of course that record 8 Challenge Cups in a row.
The Great Britain international would also try his hand down under for the Auckland Warriors where he’d impress making over 40 appearances. In 1998, he returned to Wigan with the mission to return them to the title after Wigan’s monopoly had been overthrown with the arrival of Super League.
His return coincided with Wigan’s first Super League title. The Warriors lost just twice during the regular season and won the first ever Grand Final 10-4 against second-place Leeds. Unfortunately, he missed the game through injury however he clearly had a massive impact on the side reviving the philosophies that had made them the dominant force before Super League.
He continued to serve Wigan well over the next three years playing in back-to-back Grand Finals in 2000 and 2001 before retiring.
Knowing what success required, he instantly went into coaching taking over Wigan’s Under-18s. He progressed to the Under-21s taking them to the 2003 U21 Grand Final. Again, he moved up the ranks to assistant coach before taking temporary charge at the end of 2004 leading Wigan to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final. He remained in charge until Wigan poached former St Helens coach Ian Millward. Betts worked under Millward until the end of 2005 before departing.
Interestingly, his departure coupled with Wigan’s financial problems caused an implosion at the DW Stadium leading them to flirt with relegation. Perhaps this points again to his knowledge of success. And he took that knowledge to rugby union with Gloucester for the next four years before returning to rugby league to take over at Widnes Vikings.
The Vikings were a million miles away from what they’d been in the 1980s and Betts’ job was to take them back to those heights one day. He swiftly took them from the second-tier into Super League with 2012 marking their first season back in the top flight since 2005.
Although Widnes finished bottom in 2012 it was an important season in their development as a Super League side. 2013 saw them miss out on the play-offs by just 4 points as they finished 9th.
The following year was arguably Widnes’ best in Super League history. Led by talisman Kevin Brown – a man tutored by Betts at Wigan – the Vikings made their first play-off appearance having finished 8th. Unfortunately, they crashed out at the first hurdle however it was clear that Widnes were a settled Super League side and again made the top 8 in 2016.
Betts had clearly cultivated a successful culture at Widnes as they continued to push the best teams even beating reigning Champions Leeds 56-12 in 2016. However, as some of their better players began to be poached by the big boys, Widnes began to dwindle as a Super League side culminating in a disastrous 2018 season. It’s impossible to tell what exactly went wrong in 2018 but by May Betts was let go by the Vikings as Widnes desperately sought to turn things around and avoid relegation. It was a failed attempt as Widnes sunk back to the Championship having finished 7th in the middle 8s – the lowest any Super League side has finished in the history of the format.
Ultimately, despite the disappointing end to his time at Widnes it’s clear that the Wigan legend knew what success demanded and was able to bring that to Widnes for a time as they made the play-offs for the first time ever.
He currently works for Newcastle Thunder in the Championship as Director of Rugby hoping to turn the expansion club into a force in rugby league and maybe over see promotion to Super League one day.