Mark Bennett ready to excel for Scotland

Mark Bennett is confident after tries for Glasgow Warriors against Connacht and Bath. Picture: SNS

Mark Bennett is confident after tries for Glasgow Warriors against Connacht and Bath. Picture: SNS

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MARK BENNETT’S blistering form for Glasgow has put him in the frame for autumn Tests and he’s confident he can deliver for Scotland, he tells Iain Morrison.

The date was 11 September, 2010, the venue was Millbrae and we were watching Ayr play Heriot’s. The home side had a local teenager, Mark Bennett, who hails from Cumnock, in their ranks. The Edinburgh club were leading early in the second half when Heriot’s hoofed the ball down town. Bennett got fingers to the ball but it evaded his grasp and he had to scamper back inside his own 22 to retrieve it. There was no sense of alarm from the visitors, there was no reason to panic. Heriot’s had plenty of bodies manning that side of the park and the 17-year-old newbie was nicely hemmed in by the right-hand touchline.

Bennett took off as if the bailiffs were banging on the door, swerving first in-field and then out again, beating half the Heriot’s team before diving over the line in the right-hand corner 80 yards away. His pace, vision and footwork were of the highest order. The crowd didn’t know whether to laugh or cheer and ended up doing a bit of both. Bob McKillop, who was coaching Heriot’s at the time, could only shake his head in silent wonder. It was a breathtaking show of bravado by the young Scot, who then disappeared.

OK, disappeared is too strong. Bennett didn’t go entirely off the grid, he went to France to join Clermont, where he injured his knee and returned home a year later to continue his higher rugby education at Ayr and Glasgow.

As the old joke has it, his overnight success has been a long time coming. Bennett made one league appearance for the Warriors in 2010-11 before heading for France, he enjoyed three starts in 2012-13 after his return to Glasgow and 15 last season but the player, who had been tipped for the top ever since he could tie his own boots, still hadn’t quite got there. Before this October he had made just one appearance in the European Cup: this time out he has lit up the entire tournament.

Has the centre been champing at the bit and what has sparked the change from being a handy squad player with Glasgow to standing on the brink of making his Test debut?

“I want to be playing,” is Bennett’s response to the first question. “That’s my aim. It’s frustrating not to be involved, but personally I feel much more ready for it this year. I think the experience of being around the squad last year, and then in the summer playing in the Commonwealth Games, has really put me in a good position. I feel that when the opportunity comes I can take it and perform.”

He puts his current hot streak down to “a bit of experience and confidence”.

“I played and performed really well in the Commonwealth Games, which kind of pushed me on,” adds the 21-year-old. “After that, I kind of had the feeling that I could keep going and use the form. There was a very short turn-around after the games, straight back into club rugby with Glasgow. I had a good first game against Quins and then I played pretty well against London Scottish.

“When I was able to transform that good form from the sevens into the 15s and then keep it going, it just kept my confidence up. I think everything is down to confidence at the end.

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“It’s a great brand of rugby that we play [at Glasgow], it’s really exciting. We do move the ball about and it’s great for me to get those touches. Getting the ball in space is where my strength lies. The way that we play really suits my game, as well as my game suiting the club.”

Bennett gave an early warning that he has found another gear with a brace of tries against London Scottish in the pre-season friendly. He followed that up with one touchdown against Connacht in the league and another brace against Bath in the European Champions Cup, two tries that introduced him to the rugby world at large. I wrote at the time that he beat two defenders to score the first one. Looking again at the video he actually beats three... not including the two Bath bodies he carried over the line. Little wonder he made the team of the tournament after week one.

He has come a long way from the teenage kid that Scotland coach Vern Cotter knew at French Top 14 club Clermont Auvergne. Cotter tells a story about Bennett having to be literally carried back to the team’s accommodation after one horribly gruelling pre-season fitness session in the middle of nowhere but the coach also recalled that “you could see his character and determination”. In all, Bennett spent most of a year in France and while he didn’t play first-team rugby, (outside the pre-season fixtures) he might have done were it not for an ugly knee injury that cut short his sojourn.

The Espoirs (“hopefuls”) didn’t really train with the first-team squad so he didn’t know the big guns in Clermont terribly well, at least until skipper Aurelian Rougerie introduced himself in a novel manner.

“Rougerie was always there and would help out when he could,” recalls Bennett. “The first time I met him was a bit odd. I was in the gym just after I had done my knee, just trying to get a bit of upper body work done.

“I was benching. I had never met him before and he came up and started tickling me. I just about killed myself with the weight, and he just laughed and went away. It was a bit strange. It broke the ice.”

Cotter will have been doing something similar with a few new faces this last week, breaking the ice that is (it’s all but impossible to imagine the Kiwi ticking anyone).

The young centre confirms that Cotter kept a weather eye out for him four years ago – “he did look after me” – but in all other respects “Stern Vern” has not mellowed noticeably in the interim. Cotter ran a tight ship at Clermont and is doing the exact same with Scotland.

“He is a scary guy!” says Bennett of the Scotland boss. “He is very stern, but he knows what he wants and he is strict about that. I think that’s a great thing to be. You need to reach those standards or you won’t be playing. For me it is nice to have a familiar face, someone I’ve worked with before. I know him a bit off the park. But he is strict and there is an expectation that we are going to improve.”

No one can deny that, in at least one of his younger players, that process has already started.

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