Glasgow lose out as French champions sign Mark Bennett

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GLASGOW have lost out to reigning French top 14 champions Clermont Auvergne in the battle to sign promising Ayrshire teenager Mark Bennett.

The 18-year-old from Cumnock made his name this season with Scottish Cup winners Ayr and Scotland under-20s.

Although he was on an elite development contract at Glasgow, coaches agreed to his request to take up the offer of a four-day trial with the French club in April.

Bennett worked at the club's academy, under Alex King, the former Wasps stand-off, and Freddie Maso, and met up with Jason White, Clermont's former Scotland captain, to learn a bit more about life in France.

Warriors coach Sean Lineen was hopeful of persuading him to stay in Scotland and handed him a Magners League debut in the last game of the season, away to Leinster but, accepting defeat, Lineen said yesterday: "I'm disappointed not to have Mark in my squad for next season, but I do wish him the very best.

"Mark has been one of the stand-out players to have come through our Elite Development Programme, led by Iain Monaghan, this season and his talent has therefore attracted admirers from a number of clubs."

Bennett, who will be part of Scotland's Junior World Championship squad in Italy next month, said: "I owe a lot to the coaches who have helped me throughout my early career in Scotland as part of the development programme. It was a great feeling to make my professional debut with my local club, and I would have been happy to stay in Glasgow, but the opportunity to join Clermont is one I cannot turn down."

Neil McIlroy, Clermont's Scottish team manager, told The Scotsman: "We're really happy. We identified Mark as having genuine talent and he made a positive impression when here on trial. He has a good head on his shoulders, which you need with the challenges you have coming to France and a new culture, but we'll look after him and make sure he develops into a fine player for us but also for Scotland.

"I think it's important also to point out that he's coming to our academy, not our 1st XV squad, on a standard academy contract and not 'a big-money French deal'. He will get living expenses, but he knows he will be given the chance to develop all aspects of his game and push for a place in the 1st XV in time alongside some of the best talents in European rugby."

McIlroy would not reveal the level of academy salaries, but it is believed Bennett was offered a better deal to join Glasgow's senior squad. The SRU's Director of Performance Rugby Graham Lowe insisted that that was not a poor reflection on the Scottish game, but actually showed the development process in a good light.

"Mark is a prime example of the pathway programme in Scotland developing exciting talent and it is no surprise that he has gained admirers beyond our shores," Lowe said.

"It's a shame he won't be playing professionally in Scotland in the immediate future, but we will continue to track Mark's progress and maintain an active role in his development to ensure he has the best opportunity of realising his overarching ambition of playing for Scotland."

Sale are also close to signing another former academy player, Melrose full-back Fraser Thomson, with Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond hopeful of sealing a deal "very soon".

Thomson, with Richie Vernon and Fraser McKenzie, two other young Scots who head south this summer, will be facing old team-mates swiftly as the Sharks will play Glasgow and Edinburgh at Edgeley Park in pre-season friendlies.