GLASGOW’S ambitious young centre Mark Bennett may have dreamed of pushing for senior Scotland honours in the Six Nations, but he is determined to grasp the opportunity to shine on a Newport stage in the next step in his drive for the top.
After making his professional debut for the Warriors in 2011, the then 18-year-old turned down a Glasgow contract in favour of a move to French champions Clermont Auvergne. After initially being ruled out for six months with a serious knee injury, the Cumnock youngster trained with the first team and played regularly for their under-23s in 2012. However, when Clermont agreed to a loan move for the rest of this season, the Warriors brought him home.
But such is the premium on playing time in Scottish pro rugby that he has spent the past two months turning out for Stirling County, unable to force a way past experienced Warriors centres Peter Horne, Alex Dunbar, Graeme Morrison and the versatile Sean Lamont. But a man-of-the-match display for Scotland under-20s, as well as his work ethic in training, has persuaded Townsend that now is the time for Bennett’s first start since returning to the club.
Bennett said: “It has been frustrating but the team has been playing well so it has not really been as frustrating as it would have been if we were not going so well.
“I have been playing most weeks with Stirling and then the last couple of weeks I have been playing with the under-20s so I have been getting some game time. It [going to Clermont] was the first time that I had been away from home, so it has definitely helped me as a person and, if it has helped my rugby, that will be an added bonus.
“It was a different style playing on the hard pitch all the time, a bit more free-flowing. It brought on the skills and I did a lot of skill work.
“With the guys who were round about it was hard not to learn from them.”
Bennett is still a young player with much to learn but he showed his quality in the win over Italy under-20s, notably his speed off the mark. Playing outside the powerful Alex Dunbar, he should be a potent threat to the Dragons defence.
In the past, the Scottish teams have foundered on dark nights in places such as Newport during the international windows, but Townsend heads into the Dragons’ den with an army of young Scottish talent around Bennett straining at the leash to maintain the Warriors’ momentum and hold on to their second place in the league table.
They have won four RaboDirect PRO12 games in a row, coming from behind to confidently dispose of Zebre 36-20 in their last outing away from home to build on the festive beatings of Edinburgh and a win at home to Treviso. Glasgow’s last defeats were away to Irish sides Munster and Leinster and, when they last met the Dragons, on home soil, they claimed a comprehensive 37-6 win, and set a new club record of six straight league wins in the same season.
Townsend has challenged the players to replicate that run without their internationals and has selected an exciting, if youthful team. Jon Welsh starts at tighthead prop with Gordon Reid at loosehead and Pat MacArthur back at hooker; Duncan Weir and Henry Pyrgos return at half-back, with Dunbar and Bennett backed by a trio of Peter Murchie, Byron McGuigan and the one non-Scot, DTH van der Merwe.
John Barclay retains his place in a back row with James Eddie and Ryan Wilson, while Tim Swinson and Tom Ryder start in the second row and come up against former Heriot’s and Scotland under-21 lock Ian Nimmo.
The Dragons have endured a tough season, and are second bottom with just four wins but did beat Edinburgh comfortably at home and Treviso last weekend. They have made just one change to the side that won last time out, prop Owen Evans replacing Phil Price, as they seek to back up that win.
Glasgow Warriors (v Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade, 7.05pm; live on BBC Alba)
15 Peter Murchie, 14 Byron McGuigan, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 1 Gordon Reid, 2 Pat MacArthur, 3 Jon Welsh, 4 Tim Swinson, 5 Tom Ryder, 6 James Eddie, 7 John Barclay, 8 Ryan Wilson (capt). Subs: 16 Gerwyn Price, 17 Ofa Fainga’anuku, 18 Moray Low, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Josh Strauss, 21 Niko Matawalu, 22 Scott Wight, 23 Fraser Thomson,
Newport Gwent Dragons
15 Dan Evans, 14 Will Harries, 13 Pat Leach, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Tom Prydie, 10 Steffan Jones, 9 Jonathan Evans, 1 Owen Evans, 2 Hugh Gustafson, 3 Nathan Buck, 4 Ian Nimmo, 5 Adam Jones, 6 Lewis Evans (capt), 7 Nic Cudd, 8 Ieuan Jones. Subs: 16 Sam Parry, 17 Aaron Coundley, 18 Nathan Williams, 19 Josh Tyler, 20 Jevon Groves, 21 Wayne Evans, 22 Adam Hughes, 23 Hallam Amos