Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill senses that today’s Guinness Pro14 quarter-final crunch against Munster at Thomond Park could be the occasion that Scotland centre Mark Bennett announces himself as a big-occasion player for his new club.
It was more than a year ago that it was announced that the 25-year-old was being shunted along the M8 from Glasgow Warriors but a serious knee injury sustained in the Calcutta Cup loss at Twickenham meant that Bennett didn’t get to pull on an Edinburgh jersey until January. The 20-times capped centre and Olympic silver medallist with the Great Britain sevens team has been feeling his way back since and is named to start in Limerick this afternoon as Edinburgh experience play-off rugby for the first time.
It is the type of match Bennett could be forgiven for considering unlikely when what was seen as a bit of a demotion was confirmed but Cockerill has galvanised the capital outfit and expects big things from the Ayrshireman this afternoon.
“Mark brings us a little bit more physicality and experience,” said the coach at Edinburgh Airport yesterday before flying out with the squad. “Mark has played at the highest level and physically he is very good . His big-game temperament is going to be important to us.
“He’s been injured for 12 months, come back and got some games under his belt. And also I want to create some competition for spots. We’ve done that by letting James Johnstone play the last couple of games.
“Mark has a big day ahead, simple as that. But he’s an international rugby player, an Olympian. He’s been around, won this competition for Glasgow. He knows the levels he can play. We need to see that tomorrow.
“He wasn’t the complete player when we signed him, we’ve got to keep working on his game. He’s come into a side that has needed his influence. My intuition and gut feel is he’s the man to play 13.”
Bennett is the only change to the team Cockerill initially selected for last weekend’s 24-19 win over Glasgow, with full-back Blair Kinghorn and centre Chris Dean returning after having to drop out late seven days ago.
Munster have named a strong team that includes Lions Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Cockerill welcomes that, while acknowledging that it makes moot the 12-6 home win Edinburgh enjoyed over the same, but weakened opposition during the Six Nations period. “They are fully loaded. That’s good. It is a game they have to win. It is great for us.
“I don’t think it is enjoyment we are after. We just want to go and prove to ourselves how good we can be. Look, they are expected to win. That is a no brainer, they are at Thomond and a quality side. We are a pretty good side, too, with a pretty good away record during the season.
“We will go there and play our game and try to get our strategy right and try to nullify their game and go there to win.
“Glasgow have been the best side on form but we are good enough to beat them. Leinster are probably the best side in Europe and Munster are not far behind. They are semi-finalists in Europe. It is a great challenge for us and gives us a chance to see where we are at and what it is like to play in these venues in a proper game that means something against a fully loaded team.
“It is fine beating them at home when they send their second team. Can we compete and play to that level when they are playing for keeps and we are playing for keeps.
“Thomond is a great place to go and play. They are very partisan and passionate about their rugby team. We will see if we have got the character to compete.”
Cockerill is under no illusions about what his side will face today as Munster unleash their tried and tested formula.
“We’ve got a good scrum and a good lineout both with and without the ball. We have good lineout defence, they drive a lot,” he said. “They create pressure by kicking the ball, they chase well and create pressure under the high ball in attack and defence.
“We’ve got to nullify that and not get bored. We’ve got to make sure if we are under pressure we play in the right areas of the field.
“We’re not there to entertain, we’re there to win. We’re going to meet fire with fire.
“They kick a lot. They’re probably the only team in the competition who box kick in the opposition half of the field. They play a pressure game. We have to deal with that, relieve it and then we have to play what’s in front of us when we get the opportunity. We’ve got to fire every bullet we’ve got.”