SCOTS target first New Zealand victory, Mark Bennett tells Stuart Bathgate
THERE will be no gentle introduction. No easy run-out. No cannon fodder served first up to give them a flying start. Instead, Scotland’s sevens squad will get their Commonwealth Games campaign under way with the toughest possible fixture. New Zealand are not only the reigning world and Commonwealth champions: they have never lost to Scotland. Not at sevens. Not at 15s either.
Of course, in a pool which also includes Canada and Barbados, Scotland could lose to the All Blacks yet still qualify for the knockout stages of the two-day competition. But they are not planning to kick off with a loss, and believe that a historic victory in that opening match could help propel them all the way to the podium.
“No Scottish side has beaten New Zealand ever, so hopefully we’ll be the first this coming month,” Glasgow Warriors back Mark Bennett said. “That’s the first game up, and if we can get the result we’re looking for, think of the impact it will have on us as a squad and on the crowd. The crowd will go wild if we can do that and that will spur us on as well.”
The crowd and the venue, Ibrox, will be among the keys to Scottish success, Bennett believes. “I think it will be cool playing in a football stadium. You wouldn’t get a crowd that size in a rugby stadium in Scotland other than Murrayfield. That crowd will be predominantly Scottish. It’s going to be outstanding. It’s going to be quite interesting seeing how the football players find it – that’s what they run out to week in, week out. It will be a completely different atmosphere and a different challenge for us.
“We had a walk around the stadium when our squad announcement was there, and it’s outstanding, an amazing facility. The pitch was getting relayed when we were there so it was just soil, but we’ve seen photos of it since and it looks perfect. Even that’s brought some extra excitement – playing on a pitch that’s like a bowling green. There’s no excuses with it: you can’t blame anything on that.”
A vociferous support will provide the backing required, but to ensure success, the home team will have to integrate quickly. Some are sevens regulars, well accustomed to the tactical and legal differences from 15s. Others, such as Bennett himself and Stuart Hogg, will have to adapt quickly after being drafted in from the full code. They have the talent, all right: now they need to prove their versatility.
“It’s a lot more individual, so if you make a mistake you’re letting the side down,” Bennett said when asked about making the transition. “You’ve got that accountability, so there’s a lot of emphasis on individual skills. It’s very different, as well, in the contact area. Your work on the ground when you’ve been tackled is completely different, so it’s taken a bit of adapting to.
“The tackling player can just pop up on any side, and there have been times when I’ve thought ‘What are you doing? You can’t do that.’ It confuses you.
“But the main difference just has to be the fitness. We cover a lot of ground, very fast. The day after, you feel it, because most of the contact is at a higher pace. So your body is physically sore as well as knackered.
“There’s a lot more time on the ball when you’re attacking, and when they have the ball it’s mentally draining, because it’s much easier to attack than to defend.
“It’s hard as well playing three games in one day. It’s tough going.
“It was a culture shock at first – I can remember waking up on the Sunday morning in South Africa after playing three games the day before and thinking ‘I actually need to play again today’. I wasn’t used to it. I think now the fact I’ve done it a couple of times helps.”
The squad were in action yesterday at the Sevens And The City tournament in London, before which their last involvement together was in Moscow.
“Moscow was great for us,” Bennett added. “Quite a few of the boys who hadn’t played that much sevens got a run out. Sevens is a lot harder than 15s physically and fitness-wise, so it was great for us to get that run out and blow the cobwebs out the lungs.”
Those cobwebs will need to be obliterated, from the lungs and everywhere else, if Scotland are to kick off with that win over the All Blacks and end up with the result that Bennett is confident of achieving.
“We’re going to medal,” he concluded. “Obviously our aim is for it to be gold. We’re going to medal. We’ll do it.”