Serge Betsen is an athlete who embraced pain. He pushed through it and cultivated it, making him one of the most feared flankers of his generation. But how much pain is too much pain in a sport like rugby that is entwined with constant physical battles?
Betsen grew up in Cameroon where he lived with his grandmother until the age of nine, before joining his mum in Paris. Just the change of weather alone made it difficult for Betsen to acclimatise, and the move was a big culture shock for him. “I remember going to school and I was very, very close to the radiator to, to just warm [me] up and make sure I'm not going to die” Betsen told Eurosport’s podcast Raw. He also had to watch his mum struggle as a single mother working different cleaning jobs to take care of him and his siblings, but he took this as inspiration to make a better life for them all. And when rugby presented itself to him, he took it in stride and did not look back.
He had not even heard of rugby when a friend suggested he should play. But it was not long before he fell in love with the game:
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“Rugby [made] me discover who I am, [made] me discover that I love being part of the team. I love that close relationship. I love putting my body on the line for my mate.”
Just two years after playing for the very first time, he was selected to play for the Paris District team, and soon after, he faced his first serious encounter with pain in rugby when he broke his cheekbone. Rather than being put off the sport because of this, it instead made him want it more. He recalls crying over his injury. Not because of the pain, but because it meant he was unable to continue training and playing with his teammates. His desire to play at whatever cost became a feature of his playing career. After a tumultuous time rising through the ranks in professional rugby and making it to the French first team, he landed a big opportunity to play against England and prove his ability. But his emotion and desire proved too much for his own good:
“I wanted to showcase. I wanted to again feel part of the team, I wanted to impress […] But after going to the pitch for one minute and 30 seconds, yellow cards! Serge Betsen out.
"That accident was an emotional control because I was so angry to showcase. So then I didn't listen the referee, I want to tackle it. I wanted to f****** smash people.”
Betsen, however, came back the year later after attending psychology sessions. And this time, he was able to harness his passion, pain and desire in a way that made him one of the most feared tacklers of his generation, helping France to win the six nations in 2004. He was even named the French Championship’s Player of the Season.

Serge Betsen in 2004 Six Nations action’

Image credit: Getty Images

But fearless tackling comes at a price too. Debates over what to do about head injuries in rugby are more prevalent than ever, and there are some worrying testimonies from ex-professional rugby players on the possible effects. In 2020, eight former rugby players sued the game’s authorities for negligence due to the lasting effects they now face from their injuries as players. All of the eight players had been diagnosed with early signs of dementia and Steve Thompson – Rugby World Cup winner with England – says that he “can't remember any of those games. It's frightening”.

Steve Thomspon celebrates England's 2003 World Cup win but has no recollection

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This is also an issue in the women’s game too, with former Wales rugby player Nic Evans also says she has no recollection of her first game at Twickenham, and with some early research suggesting that female players are also at a “greater risk of suffering concussion than men”, but yet have less research conducted on their injuries. Evans expanded on this stating “I work within PE and sport and a lot of sports science research is about men, and only now are we starting to see sport science about women because we are different, our bodies are different, our physiology is different”, showing just how far there is to go in researching these potential risks for all players.

England and France during the 2021 Women’s Six Nations

Image credit: Getty Images

Betsen also believes that more still needs to be done by those in charge to help protect players. He states; “at the minute there’s so many federations who don't do what they should do in order to get the player into that optimal situation”. He believes that more time needs to be given between games for recovery and is also aware of how little these possible damaging consequences were taken into consideration when he was playing: “People now know that the body can’t do 50 games of rugby a year. And I was doing that. It’s just unbelievable”. But this does show the increase in knowledge around a topic that still needs so much more research, hopefully signalling that with more knowledge will come better precautions and solutions. And signs of this are already showing with World Rugby announcing a new “landmark” study set to be conducted this year on more than 700 male and female amateur rugby union players on the effects to the brain during head impacts.
The ability to fight through pain and take on tackle after tackle is a huge part of how Serge Betsen made such a name for himself. His fearless approach to rugby boosted his success, and the physicality that he embodied in his game is an integral part of the sport that is loved by fans all over the world. But the worrying signs are there on rugby’s potential damaging impacts on players, and the sport’s governing bodies know they have to do more to keep up to date with the ongoing research and implement the right safety protocols and technology. Serge Betsen played his heart out, but future players are going to have to think with their head just as much as their heart in order to continue to love the game once they stop playing it.
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