Japan absence gamble pays off for Scotland’s Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett plays for Great Britain against Germany during the 2016 Rugby Europe Mens Sevens Championships at Sandy Park, Exeter, earlier this month. Picture: Harry Trump/Getty
Mark Bennett plays for Great Britain against Germany during the 2016 Rugby Europe Mens Sevens Championships at Sandy Park, Exeter, earlier this month. Picture: Harry Trump/Getty
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Mark Bennett readily admits that he took a risk in choosing a shot at the Olympics over Scotland’s summer tour to Japan but is delighted that it has paid off with selection for the Great Britain sevens squad yesterday.

The 23-year-old Glasgow Warriors centre was yesterday named along with 31-year-old Scotland Sevens specialist Mark Robertson, two Welshmen and eight Englishmen in the 12-man pool for Rio and couldn’t contain his delight that he was to be an Olympian.

“I couldn’t do both [the Olympics and the tour to Japan]. That wasn’t an option. So, yes, it was one I had to weigh up,” he said in London after the squad was announced by GB coach Simon Amor. “It was a risk to come here but I’m absolutely delighted it paid off. I can’t wait to get going now.

“I’m absolutely delighted. It has been a big day with the announcement. The support we’ve had so far has been overwhelming and I just can’t wait to get going now.”

Bennett admits that there was “a conversation” with Scotland head coach Vern Cotter but he insisted that the SRU had been supportive of his decision.

“I wouldn’t say it was a difficult conversation,” said the centre, who is the most established 15-a-side player in the squad. “But it was one I had to have. Scottish Rugby were really supportive of me. They said to me it was up to me and they would support me either way. The decision was made and that was that, and here we are.”

The extended training squads which took part in a number of warm-up tournaments included a number of other Scots, but the likes of Scott Riddell, Jamie Farndale
 and Lee Jones have missed out.

“I’ve seen them all,” said Bennett of his disappointed compatriots. “Of course they’re not [happy] but if you were there would be something wrong. It is what it is and the team has been named, so they have got behind everyone. We all played together at the weekend and it was tough, but that’s sport for you.”

The Scot admitted that returning to the abbreviated game had proved a challenge, but one he has relished. “It’s been a tough six weeks for everyone involved. Everyone has been working hard putting in the effort,” he said.

“At the end of the day it’s not my decision to pick the squad. The squad is as it is and we just have to put in the best performances we can for the ones who haven’t been selected. I’ve actually put on weight since I’ve been down here. Maybe that’s because we had a few weeks when we didn’t play and were just training.

“It has been a tough one. It’s a completely different game, but one that I enjoy. As tough as it has been, it is another challenge and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Bennett had the experience of representing Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and admitted that played a big part in sparking the flames of his Olympic dream.

“Definitely. The Commonwealth Games were a great experience,” he said. “That was what really drove the decision to try and go again here. I played pretty well at the Commonwealth Games and off the back of that I had my best season in 15s. Let’s hope we can do the same this year.

“It was great being around all the different athletes from different sports, who are all trying to peak at the same time. It was really interesting seeing what was going on.

“Meeting people you’re not normally going to meet is what it’s all about. The experience at Ibrox itself was incredible. The support was outstanding and it was huge for rugby. This is the first opportunity for rugby sevens to be in the Olympics and it’s only going to grow again.”

The Zika virus has been one of the main talking points leading up to Rio, where Britain’s men will face New Zealand, Japan and Kenya in their pool, but Bennett has no concerns.

“We’ve been given lots of information by the medics about it,” he said. “We’ve been briefed about it. I don’t see it as much of a risk. I’m just looking forward to getting out there and enjoying the experience of the Olympic Games.

“We’ve been told to wear long tops and get the mosquito repellent on.”

Bennett will now return home for a few days before teaming back up with the squad in London next week.

Now that selection is secured he will turn his focus more to the Games themselves, with the men’s event taking place from 9-11 August.

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve not been paying too much attention to the other teams because I didn’t know what I would be doing,” he said. “I wanted to wait and find out what was happening with me before I looked at anyone else. I know that big Leone [Nakarawa, Glasgow’s former Fijian lock] will be going so it will be great to see him out there, although I wouldn’t particularly want to play against him.

“It will be good to see some familiar faces there. I think [former Glasgow signings] Folau Niua and Carlin Isles are in the USA squad.”

After a sensational World Cup, which saw Bennett named World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year for 2015, his formed tailed off a bit in the second half of the season and he slipped out of the Scotland squad during the Six Nations.

He hopes that a good performance in the Olympics can be a springboard to a good season with club and country, although it may be that it affects the start of his club season. “I’ve just got to keep working hard and performing as well as I can,” he said.

“I’ve had a brief conversation with Gregor [Townsend, the Glasgow head coach] but nothing is set in stone. I will be getting a bit of time off afterwards, but we haven’t worked out what that will look like yet.”

Tom Mitchell captains the GB men’s squad, which also features James Rodwell, who set a new world record earlier this year after playing in 69 consecutive World Rugby Sevens Series’ tournaments.

Marcus Watson, the brother of England wing Anthony and James Davies, the brother of Wales centre Jonathan, are also in the squad.

It will be the first time in 108 years that GB have had representation in rugby at Olympic level.