SCOTLAND’S Mark Bennett has backed centre-partner Alex Dunbar to return stronger than ever after injury left his World Cup dream in tatters.
The Glasgow Warrior was crushed when it was confirmed Scotstoun colleague Dunbar would not make Vern Cotter’s 31-man travelling Scotland squad for England 2015.
I’m absolutely gutted for Alex. He’s a quality player but it was always going to be a big ask to come back from an ACL in the space of six monthsMark Bennett
The 22-year-old suffered a serious cruciate ligament rupture in his knee just days before the Scots faced England during the RBS 6 Nations in March.
That left him facing a race against time to get fit for the the tournament, which begins for the Dark Blues against Japan in Gloucester on September 23.
But, despite making some huge strides in recent weeks, Dunbar has not yet been able to return to action, leading Cotter to decide that selecting the 25-year-old without a thorough test of his knee was too much of a gamble.
He may be given a reprieve if one of the four centres selected by the head coach suffers an injury nightmare of their own, but even then he would need to show he can stand up to the rigours of a World Cup.
It is a cruel blow for a player who had proved to be one of the Scots’ most useful weapons.
And Bennett also felt the pain after watching his friend put in hours of graft in order to give himself hope.
He said: “I’m absolutely gutted for Alex. He’s a quality player but it was always going to be a big ask to come back from an ACL in the space of six months.
“Fair play to him, he’s given it as good a shot as he could. He’s not far off a return and he’s working as hard as he can to get back. I’ve got a lot of respect for the work he has put in.
“Hopefully we will see him sooner rather than later.
“As far as I know he’s just focusing now on getting back playing without placing too much attention on the World Cup. He’s in a good place right now and just wants to get back on the field.
“But I’m sure that whenever he gets back he will be a stronger person for it.”
Bennett himself faced injury problems in recent months but looked well prepared as he shone for Scotland in their 19-16 loss to France in Paris on Saturday.
“It’s was a stop-start season for me last year with a few injuries, but I always felt I was doing well when I did get started,” he said.
“However, I feel strong now and I’m ready to rock and roll.
“I never feared that I would not be back in time for the World Cup. I tried to stay positive and that helped.
“I’ve recovered from injuries quickly in the past and I’m still young so I have youth on my side. In my head I knew I was going to make it and thankfully nothing has stopped me.
The Scots looked on course for victory in their final match before the World Cup at the Stade de France after Tommy Seymour scored the opening try.
But Les Bleus stormed back to claim victory with Noa Nakaitaci’s late touchdown.
It was a frustrating defeat, especially after Scotland had earlier withstood wave after wave of France attacks.
They could have snatched a result at the death, only for Matt Scott to waste a golden chance with a wild throw after captain Greig Laidlaw turned down the chance to claim a draw with a penalty in favour of chasing the win.
“It was disappointing to lose in Paris because we played well in parts of the game,” Bennett said. “We were under pressure on our own line and defended great.
“But unfortunately they managed to break through and get the winning try.
“The satisfying thing, though, is that we came out the back of that and pushed forward. And right up until the dying seconds we looked capable of winning.
“We put ourselves in strong positions so there are a lot of positives to take into the World Cup.”