Glasgow 2014 sevens call caps Bennett’s weekend

Scotland's Commonwealth Games squad, pictured at Ibrox. Picture: SNS/SRU
Scotland's Commonwealth Games squad, pictured at Ibrox. Picture: SNS/SRU
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FROM one high to the next. That has been Mark Bennett’s life over the past few days, and he aims to keep hitting the heights right through summer.

The centre had barely recovered from helping Glasgow to a thrilling win in their RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final on Friday night when he got a call from Stevie Gemmell asking if he fancied being in the Scotland sevens squad for the Commonwealth Games? Yes he did, funnily enough, and it was therefore no surprise when, asked yesterday at the team announcement if he had just experienced the best weekend of his life, the 21-year-old replied: “Yes, I can’t argue with that.”

True, it would have been better yet if Bennett had also been named in Vern Cotter’s Scotland squad for the summer tour – Sean Lamont and Tommy Seymour were both named by the new national coach on Tuesday, as well as being among the dozen names announced by Gemmell yesterday, so doubling up is clearly seen as feasible by Scottish Rugby’s powers-that-be. But if Bennett’s ambitions have been thwarted in that respect, he nonetheless has a great deal to look forward to – a final against Leinster at the end of the month, and then the two days of action at Ibrox in front of a crowd of around 40,000 in late July.

“It’s all coming round pretty quickly,” Bennett added. “It has been from one high to the next so far. It has been a great time for Glasgow and now to get this opportunity as well, it’s one I’m grateful for. Yes, I’m disappointed [to miss the tour], because my aim is to play for Scotland at 15s but I’m absolutely delighted that I’m one of the few who are going to get an opportunity to play at a Commonwealth Games, never mind a home Commonwealth Games. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s a real launchpad. It’s a global tournament and there will be a lot of people watching, so to go out and perform is obviously going to improve and help you in the 15-a-side game as well.

“The squad is full of high-quality players, and we’ve really got an opportunity to go and put in a performance. Our aim is to medal and I think we’ve got the personnel that we can really go out and do that.”

“We can really try to develop the sport. There will be a lot of people watching who wouldn’t normally watch rugby so, if we can convert them into rugby fans, then the impact that will have on the game in Scotland is huge.”

No matter how fit or skilled a player is, making the transition from 15s to sevens can be exhausting, both mentally and physically, as Bennett found when playing for Scotland in the Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens in Port Elizabeth at the end of last year.

Like Lamont and Seymour, he still has some adapting to do, but is confident that now the squad has been named everyone can gel quickly.

“Port Elizabeth was the first time I’d played sevens – apart from a couple of tournaments with my club when I was 15 or 16 – so it was a bit of an eye-opener for me,” he said. “It’s tough physically, it’s very, very fast and you need to be very fit.

“I felt it first hand out in South Africa. At half-time of every game I was saying to Stevie ‘Look, I’m bust here, I’m done’. So it’s very different, and I think that’s something that will come with training. The guys we’ve got here are all fit and strong and will perform.

“Instead of playing 80 minutes once on a Friday night you’re playing six games of 14 minutes over the whole weekend, so the whole warming up, playing and cooling down process, over and over again, it’s tough physically. After the weekend you’re pretty drained, probably in a different way than you are at 15s.”

“Getting up for a game, trying to chill out after a game to get yourself recovering – that’s tough. And it’s hard going having to adapt to different styles of game – because you’re playing New Zealand at one point, then a few hours later you are playing another team with a totally different structure.

“It is mentally tiring, but it’s something that you’ve just got to take in your stride and get on with it. It’s a steep learning curve and I think the main difference is that if you make a mistake there’s no one there covering for you. So there is a lot of individual responsibility for everyone in the team. You need to go out and be at your best all the time.”

Inevitably, Bennett and his team-mates will be under pressure to deliver in the Commonwealth Games, and expectations have been lifted by Scotland’s fourth place at the Glasgow 7s at the start of this month.

But, as far as he is concerned, that pressure comes with the territory – and when you’re playing on home territory, it is offset by the support from your own fans.

“No matter what level you’re performing at, if you’ve got that desire to win there is pressure – and whether that’s coming from your team-mates or the supporters, there’s always pressure there and it’s just something you have to deal with.

“I think it can really push us on. Having a big home crowd will make a big difference. We’ve seen how the boys performed at Scotstoun, and, speaking to the boys, it did actually make a difference having a very loud crowd. It really spurred us on.”