Despite Portugal's fall from grace, Pedro Bettencourt is rising to the top
In a rugby landscape in which the Portuguese national game's fortunes are more famine than feast, Newcastle Falcons Portugal Test centre Pedro Bettencourt is going from strength to strength. Thankful to reach the heights of Premiership and Championship Cup rugby, Bettencourt is defying the odds ahead of his return to France summer with the prospect of Top14 rugby.
Cast your eyes and years across British rugby and you’ll find no lack of South Africans, Australians, Pacific Islanders and the odd Irishman playing their craft across the Irish Sea. These cultural and physical differences these overseas stars bring to the table can (and has) only improve the quality of this gladiatorial game we know and love. And if we’re honest, these foreign stars have opened up the collective minds of we mere watchers of the game to the lifestyles that contrast so starkly to our own usual comfort zones.
However, our favourite Southern Hemisphere dignitaries are not alone in their ability to open the eyes of both their teammates, coaches and adoring fans to new lifestyles and ways of life. Just a few short hours away via plane - a trifle of a journey when compared to the trip across the equator - are the rich cultures of our fellow Europeans. The Hispanic, Carpathian, Scandinavian and many more European regions remain yet untapped by the game’s long-limbed reach.
But this should not be taken as a criticism. The game - and the money - follows the rugby, and there simply aren’t many non-English speaking European nations pumping out players of top-flight pedigree. This will perhaps change in the decades to come, but for now, we must cherish any such exposure.
Fortunately for those of a Kingston Park persuasion this year, they are in the minority of teams able to boast such culture within their ranks. Portuguese centre Pedro Bettencourt joined the Premiership’s most northern outfit from Carcassonne last summer and has been relishing his chance to mix it with some of the world’s top talent after seeing nation’s international game wither in recent years.
Speaking to The Rugby Magazine, the former Clermont and Carcassonne man said: “I feel incredibly lucky, to be honest. I’m living my dream. I’ve played in the Premiership and the Champions Cup [with Newcastle], it’s pretty much a dream come true.
“Everyone had their own battles and everybody has a different path to the way they reach stuff. Maybe I got a tougher than another player, maybe I got an easier path to another, that’s just the way it is really. But I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I do.”
As to be expected by a Portuguese native operating within the Premiership, Bettencourt's journey is quite unlike the majority of his Premiership teammates and rivals. For the former Clermont Academy product, the usual path that starts in professional club rugby and climaxes on the international stage was turned on its head.
While the likes of Worcester’s Ted Hill, Saracens’ Maro Itoje and Sale Sharks’ Tom Curry stood to the fore for their respective sides’ academy setups in the lead up to their Test debuts, Bettencourt secured his place in Clermont Auvergne’s academy after impressing for Portugal’s national side as an eighteen-year-old, both on the sevens circuit and the full 15-man code.
“I got into the sevens team in 2012, I was 18-years-old. Played in the World Series for a couple of years." The 24-year-old said. “At the same time, there was a Portuguese team [the Lusitanos XV] playing in the Amlin Cup [now names the Challenge Cup] that year. I got some game time with that team as well then got my first cap for the fifteens team.
“The Portuguese Rugby Union pretty much just made a team up [Lusitanos] from the Portuguese national team, from those [that lived] in Portugal.
“Back then, Portuguese rugby was in a better position that it is now. We were still playing on the sevens circuit, we had that team that year in the Amlin Cup and the national team was in the Six Nations B, which it isn’t anymore."
With the Lusitanos' existence so short-lived, lasting just one season, and the significant discrepancy between this cobbled-together side made up of students and amateurs working 9-5 jobs and their professional counterparts, teams such as Stade Francais and London Irish, there was little opportunity for Bettencourt to truly make his mark.
Instead, it was French-born, Portuguese international and former Clermont flanker Julian Bardy that spotted the potential in the teenage centre impressing for his national side.
“I had some contact with some agents and also Julian Bardy," Bettencourt explained. “We [Bettencourt and Bardy] played together at Portugal. He’s French-born, but his mother’s family are Portuguese. So we played together a bit and after my first few caps he got me in contact with Clermont.”
Bettencourt spent two years in the Clermont Academy learning what is required to operate as a professional rugby player, going on to apply his Auvergne education in France's second division, the ProD2, for two years with Carcassonne before linking up with the Falcons.
Now at 24 and knocking about with some of the game’s biggest names in the highest level of professional club rugby, Bettencourt has a lot to thank Bardy for.
Had Bettencourt taken his step up to the Portuguese national team just a season later, he may not have had the opportunity to impress Bardy enough to prompt the Clermont connection and his first step into the world of professional rugby. Soon after his France move, the national game would all but drop off the map.
“When I think back to that year [as an 18-year-old in 2012] if I didn’t make it into pro rugby, I’d never have made it, pretty much. I was obviously getting a year older and that was the best year to make it. A couple of years later we weren’t in the Six Nations B anymore, the sevens team no longer exists on the World Series circuit either and the Amlin Cup team was gone soon after as well.
“They [the Portugal Sevens side] still play in the tournaments they have to play, like the Rugby Europe tournaments in the summer, pretty much. That’s how they can get the results to get onto the World Series, but it’s pretty messed up lately.
“You need money for the results and you need results for money, pretty much. So that’s the vicious circle they’re in.”
Bettencourt’s English excursion will last just one season, returning to France to join ProD2 side Oyonnax. The Eastern France side currently sits one spot off the top of the league. Trailing first-placed Brive on 83 points to 87, Bettencourt's new side are currently fighting off the advances of Bayonne as they look to secure a return to the Top14 next season as one of the two-up, two-down relegation-promotion system over the English Channel.
But for now, the 20 cap Portugal centre has his attention solely focused on his time left in England, taking what he can from the highest level setup he has had the fortune to not only train, as he did with Clermont, but play in.
Asked how his experience with Clermont differs to his one-season stint in the Premiership, Bettencourt said: “It’s pretty different to other clubs obviously, especially from country to country, but I identify a lot with the way we do things here at Falcons, the way we play the game.
“There’s a lot of clarity in how we do stuff and why we do stuff. I feel like it’s been a big learning journey over here as well. Whereas obviously in Clermont I was still developing myself as a young player. I learned a lot there, that was the biggest step I’ve taken, from Portugal to Clermont when I was like 19.
“But I wasn’t expecting to learn as much as I have here [Newcastle] this season as well.
“There’s a lot of information you need to pick up, you need to load in a lot of stuff to be successful. So obviously that’s a big shock, a positive shock, if I can say that word, because it changes the way you live pretty much.
“In Clermont, I arrived at 19 from an amateur situation where I trained two or three times a week. I was in an amateur way of viewing the game, then you go to being full time working in rugby, thinking about rugby and your job 24/7 is about rugby.
“I never played top-flight French rugby, which I have played here with Newcastle but I haven’t played Top14 yet. But generally in the Top14, compared to the Prem, the players are bigger, the impacts are bigger.
“In the Prem, the game is quicker and coaches try to get the game quicker. So we don’t need players as big as they are in France, if that makes sense.
“I think that’s the general concept people have, I know it’s a generalisation and it obviously changes from club to club depending on how they play the game, but that’s the general idea I’ve got.”
Are you up to full speed with the game here now?
“Yeah, well it was quite tough at the start. I came in at the end of pre-season and then got injured as well. It was quite tough to adapt because there was a lot of information to take in. But once you start playing and you get some games under your belt you get into the rhythm quickly.”
As a youngster growing up in Portugal, Bettencourt looked up to some of the sport’s most learned stars, taking inspiration from those sporting idols that were perhaps less athletic than their fellows, but became renowned for their speed of thought, application and street-wise antics.
Johnny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith are the names that stand to the front of Bettencourt’s former idols, modelling his own game and aspirations on their ability to rise to the highest rugby echelons despite lacking what can be described as athletic dominance.
As you would expect to hear from any of these stars at the age of 24 when asked how much further they have to go, Bettencourt is firm in his belief that he still has some way to go in his own development.
“I think I have a lot left. Obviously, as a competitor, you want to play as many games as you can and win those games. I haven’t played much this year, but hopefully, I’m still involved in the three games I have left and we can get the job done. Obviously I’m looking forward to Oyonnax next season, which is where I’ll be going, and hopefully, make my mark over there and prove a big point to myself.
“My main goal now is to play this week for Newcastle and win that game if it happens.
“Obviously I have in my mind that I’m leaving this year, and that gives me a bit of extra motivation to just finish in the highest possible way. Leave my mark on the Falcons.”