February 3, 2020
We’re not in this just to make up the numbers,” insists Denis Betts as he outlines the ambitious blueprint at the heart of Newcastle Thunder’s grand plan to rise through Rugby League’s ranks.
“We don’t simply want to compete in Super League. We want to win it. It’s no good simply striving to be in the mix.”
One glance at his stellar record as a player and coach and it becomes abundantly clear that Denis has never been content with ‘being in the mix’. There is no place for mediocrity within a mindset focused on excellence.
From day one the Salford born second row has been in it to win it. And he’s won it all. Denis, a former Manchester United trainee who lived a stone’s throw from Old Trafford, claimed every domestic honour in Rugby League during two spells as a member of the all-conquering Wigan Warriors.
He was awarded 32 caps for Great Britain and went on to coach at the highest level for club and country – even switching codes to work with Rugby Union powerhouse Gloucester before leading Widnes Vikings back to the League summit.
Everywhere Denis goes, success follows. However, in 2020, the 50-year-old faces what many believe to be his toughest challenge yet. When Newcastle Thunder kick off their latest League 1 campaign at home to West Wales Riders at Kingston Park this month, the true significance of an intriguing opening weekend fixture will likely be lost on all but those closest to a club in transition.
At first glance it’s just another game in England’s often overlooked third tier. However, for director of rugby Denis, his coaching staff and a new-look squad it’s the first step on a journey towards establishing the club as a key player in a sport poised to welcome the World Cup in 2021.
It’s now or never for an organisation that needs no reminding of the oncein-a-generation opportunity to re-establish Rugby League’s reputation at the heart of a region rich in potential but struggling for recognition.
“Last season was Thunder’s best for ten or 15 years,” explains Denis. “It still wasn’t good enough. We came out of that campaign massively disappointed because we’d worked so hard to put ourselves in a position where promotion to the Championship was possible. Ultimately, we missed out by a goal kick.
“Once the dust had settled we talked about what we needed to do to ensure we went one better this year. We asked ourselves who we were, what our purpose was and what we stood for.
“It’s got to the point where we need to draw a line in the sand and leave the past in the past. We appreciate the Gateshead Thunder years but that’s history. We need to move forward, set new goals and give ourselves a fresh purpose.
“When people look at Newcastle Thunder what do they see? Newcastle Falcons’ little brother? Or, worse still, a lesser team that squats in the Falcons’ stadium? We need to brand ourselves as something unique and out on our own.
“We’re on a journey with goals that are achievable given the strength of the organisation and the structures in place. Yes it’s going to be difficult but we can deliver something that’s exciting and something that’s got the potential to grow.
“This summer we’re kicking off Rugby League’s Magic Weekend at St James’s Park and in 2021 the same stadium is hosting the opening match of the World Cup. The city of Newcastle is already well and truly on the Rugby League map – it’s time for Newcastle Thunder to become the focal point for the sport in this part of the world.”
Given Denis’s storied career there’s no doubt Thunder owner Semore Kurdi pulled off something of a coup in persuading the 50-year-old to commute from his North West base and take on a project that required serious commitment and a giant leap of faith. Even within their own stadium the club is still overshadowed by Rugby Union and Dean Richards’ promotion-chasing Falcons.
Beyond Kingston Park and Thunder are fighting to make their presence felt in a region dominated by football. So why did Denis take on this most difficult of tasks when there was surely no shortage of offers from bigger, wealthier sporting organisations seeking to tap into a vast well of experience and cement an association with one of Rugby League’s most recognisable stars?
“I was in between roles this time last year,” he adds, almost 12 months to the day that he signed an initial short-term contract with Thunder.
“I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do next. I was working with a few individuals doing some mentoring work and I was working with a group of football coaches looking at structures and different approaches.
“Out of the blue I took a phone call from [managing director] Mick Hogan and he asked whether I’d still be interested in the role that Thunder was looking to fill. We’d had a couple of brief conversations before but this seemed like the right opportunity at the right time.
“I knew the organisation had ambition but they’d started to understand where their shortcomings were. I met Mick and I was taken with the vision. From a personal point of view, I still love Rugby League and I love the passion of the people involved with the sport. I could see that passion at Thunder straight away.
“On the other side of the coin, I’d also seen some of the blind ambition that can flow through sports organisations during my time at Widnes. My eight years there and the journey that took me on was a rollercoaster of emotions – there were great times, poor times and times of financial instability.
“Newcastle looked like it could be different. I was impressed by what Semore Kurdi had to say and by the overall strength of the organisation off the field. What had been set up was clearly very stable financially. The ambition around the place was infectious.”
However, stories of ambition unfulfilled litter the annals of sporting history and even Thunder – in their ill-fated Super League guise – can point to a painful tale of what might have been. Shaun McRae’s squad finished sixth in the elite division at the end of the 1999 season but the franchise was rumoured to have racked up debts in excess of £700,000.
Later that year the organisation moved to Hull and Tyneside’s brief flirtation with top-flight Rugby League was over almost before it had begun. Denis is well aware that all of the evidence points to a similar struggle but his faith in the Thunder project is unwavering.
“Rugby League has been played in the North East on and off for more than 100 years and I still believe it can sustain a permanent Super League base in this sports-mad region,” he adds.
“I’m convinced we can create a winning team that the people up here will grow to love. I know Thunder’s story and I can understand the scepticism. But it just felt right when Mick approached me and it still feels right now.
“From day one he was so animated and passionate about where he saw this club going and that was enough for me.”
For now, the direction is onwards and upwards. Thunder’s fixture against Doncaster on May 23 will kick off the 2020 Dacia Magic Weekend at St James’s Park – a 48-hour celebration of Super League featuring every top-flight franchise.
It’s the first time Newcastle’s Rugby League side has been invited to step out at the home of the city’s footballing giants and represents another significant staging post on the journey towards wider recognition and greater credibility.
“We’re never going to compete with Newcastle United but we do feel we can complement them,” adds Denis. “We’re here to offer fans of the Magpies and the Falcons something completely different. We don’t want to take them away from what they know and love but why not pitch ourselves as a second-team for those supporters?
“Nobody can compete with Newcastle United north of the Tyne. There’s no point even trying. I come from Salford and down there it’s the same with Manchester United. But there is always room for something different.
“I still see myself as a football fan first even though I’ve lived and breathed Rugby League all of my working life. So I understand the challenges of operating in a football-mad part of the world.
“We need to be sensible. We need to look at what Newcastle United do well and try to piggyback onto some of the good things that they do. If you’re passionate about sport – as so many people in the North East are – then one team isn’t always enough. Life’s tough and Thunder can provide an escape. We’re embarking on an exciting journey and we want as many people as possible to join us.
“The opportunity to play at St James’s Park at the Dacia Magic Weekend is huge. We’ve got local lads in the squad whose dream it is to play there and from the club’s point of view it’s the perfect stage on which to set out our stall.”
It’s also the ideal time to galvanise the region’s Rugby League community and bring together the grassroots players, volunteers and club officials who represent the lifeblood of the sport in the North East and hold its long-term future in their hands.
“Growing community links by offering something back to that community is central to our vision,” agrees Denis. “Helping kids get active, giving them exciting alternatives, providing some joy and getting them moving again – we can do all of that. We can give young players something to aspire to and encourage them to feel part of something special.
“However, from a community perspective what we do isn’t always about being the best team in the competition. It’s about having the right values and having the right commitment to those people who support us and who we want to support.”
Denis might have done it all during an illustrious career as a player, coach and, in 2020, a member of Thunder’s senior management team. However, his mantra is to keep learning and to keep evolving. In Denis’ opinion, nothing beats the broadest possible range of skills and experience.
“Initially I saw myself as a career coach,” he adds. “To do that I needed to become qualified. Playing at the top level wasn’t enough and so I went back to school and got a degree in sports coaching. I had used my experiences as a player to get a foot in the door but in order to stay inside the room, I needed to go back to university.
“Then I went to Gloucester and suddenly I wasn’t doing something I’d done all my life. I came right out of my comfort zone. The two codes of rugby are completely different and suddenly I had to coach and deal with people from different backgrounds and different places.
“After that I went to Widnes and found myself at a club that had been floundering for ten years. They had no sense of direction or purpose but within four or five years they were back in Super League and their academy was producing the next generation of homegrown players.
“All of those experiences have led me to this point at Newcastle Thunder. Everybody in sport – and certainly those who follow sport in the North East – has seen examples of when the house falls down. That can’t happen here. I look at Thunder and we have to make sure this place is built in concrete.”
Newcastle Thunder open their League 1 account when West Wales Riders visit Kingston Park on February 15.For tickets call 0871 2266060 or visit www.thunderrugby.co.uk/ tickets/
The 2020 Dacia Magic Weekend takes place at St James’s Park from May 23-24. For tickets visit www.superleague.co.uk/ tickets/magic-weekend