/ 21 January 2011

A Serge to the finish for ‘Le Secateur’

A Serge To The Finish For 'le Secateur'

“You’re going to make me cry now,” Serge Betsen says with a crumpled smile as his battered rugby player’s face creases in the bare white-walled room.

Sitting at a small table, in a functional office at the back of the Wasps training ground in Acton, London, the French flanker shakes his head. His mind is flooded with memories, of leaving Cameroon as a nine-year-old boy and arriving in Paris, and of the journey he has since taken to end his rugby career in London.

Betsen is one of the great loose forwards of world rugby, a sportsman who deserves to be revered both for the ferocity of his play and for his warmth away from the pitch; and so it is poignant to hear him reflect on his achievements as on well as the fact that this is meant to be his last season.

On Sunday, in the final match of the European group stages, Betsen clashes with his oldest club rivals, Toulouse, in a battle that will help decide whether the Wasps sneak into the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup. And then, next month, on the night before England play France in the Six Nations, a benefit dinner will be held for Betsen in London.

The tears almost fall when Betsen explains that, ahead of the French and Cameroon ambassadors, and even former teammates like Fabien Galthie and Phil Vickery, his most important dinner guest will be his mother. But he waves away the threat that he might cry with another grin. “I will enjoy my mother being there more than anything. From Cameroon to Paris and now London — we can have a big celebration.”

The sense of doing something meaningful, for the last time, will be a recurring theme for the 36-year-old between now and midyear. “In July I celebrate my rugby anniversary. I arrived in Biarritz from Paris in July 1991. So this is my 20th year in rugby. The time goes too fast.”

Vivid memories
Betsen laughs again, because it seems the most sensible and simply human response to the years hurtling past. But vivid memories remain; especially of Betsen’s destructive brilliance for France as he hunted down opposition playmakers and, either through another huge hit or relentless foraging, won back the ball. For English rugby followers, his performance in 2002, when he helped France win the Grand Slam by destroying Jonny Wilkinson at his peak in Paris, was his most remarkable. Clive Woodward claimed that England had been beaten “single-handedly” by Betsen, and he also said later that Betsen’s tour de force had been the final lesson England needed to absorb before winning the World Cup.

“I’m proud to hear that, but I would prefer to have won the World Cup. Those were my two big disappointments: to be beaten twice by England in the semifinals [in 2003 and 2007]. To lose to the same team, in the last step before you reach the best final in your sport, was very hard. It’s one of the reasons I’m here, to understand why, why? Why did I lose to the English? I have learned a lot from Anglo-Saxon rugby culture.”

Unlike many French players, Betsen was strikingly consistent in his 63 Tests. But he has his own favourite performance. “English people always talk about 2002 and Wilkinson being taken out of the game. But the one I remember most was also in 2002. It was in Cardiff, playing Wales, and it was horrendous!”

By now he is grimacing and chortling in equal measure. “That game was the hardest of my career. I tackled the Quinnell brothers all afternoon. They were huge and when they were running at you, carrying the ball, the crowd was fucking mad!”

He is surprisingly small, at least for a remorseless tackler nicknamed “Le Secateur”, which is often translated as the Grim Reaper. Yet, does this endearingly lively and amiable man feel the Reaper tag is appropriate? “In France it means the machine on the farm that … how do you say?” A threshing machine? “Exactly. I am cutting my opponent’s legs like that machine.”

Betsen’s skills have often been ignored in the face of the awe he generates when scything down his rivals. Hearing this comment, Betsen jumps up with a whooping exclamation. For a moment it looks, worryingly, as if he is about to kiss me. Instead, he just gives me an exuberant handshake and shouts: “Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! People forget this. They just see the tackling. But first of all I am a rugby player. And to play rugby you need the ball. You have to tackle, but when you have the ball you must pass it in a good and creative way.”

Betsen retired from international rugby two years ago this month, but his impact remains, for he led a small wave of Africa-born players who have played for Les Bleus in recent years. He also suffered from racism, but he underplays his suffering. “Sometimes I heard the racism, but I didn’t feel it. My play often frustrated people and they responded stupidly. They said the first stupid thing that came into their head. And that was a racist thing. But I never said anything back, I just kept playing.”

Pride and wonder
More personally, Betsen’s memory of his journey from Cameroon is freighted with pride and wonder. “I remember it very well,” he says of the wintry morning he arrived with his mother in Paris in 1983. “It was freezing but, coming from Africa, Paris looked amazing. So, I must thank my mother for taking the decision to come to France with us four kids. It was tough for her and she had to work very hard. She gave up everything to make a better life for us. She inspired me with her love and, how do say it, generosity?”

Betsen started playing rugby in Clichy when he was 12 and his enduring appreciation of how much the game has given him echoes repeatedly. “It is because of rugby that me and my wife have had this big experience for over two years in London. When I left Biarritz, after 17 years, I wanted an experience that would motivate and even scare me. It’s been even better than I hoped.

“Our daughter is seven and our son is four. It was amazing to put them in school in Ealing and after three months we realised our little girl was fluent in English. Her English was already better than ours. That was a great moment.”

Next month’s testimonial dinner will seem an especially apt moment to celebrate Betsen’s rugby life. “It’s not just about me. The money will go to two charities. The first is Fight for Sight, a UK charity to help blind people. The second is for the Serge Betsen Academy. I started this in 2004 in Cameroon to help poor children go to school and get medical assistance.

“To have arrived in Paris with nothing, just my mother and us kids, and to now be in London, with a great club like Wasps, is a gift. My whole life in rugby has been a gift.” —