Mark Bennett: Scotland centre fired up for Italy after fearing he was ‘done’ at Test level

The Mark Bennett revival has led to an international recall but the centre admits he had doubts about his chances of breaking back into the Scotland set-up.

Bennett is in the mix to start his first Test match in almost six years on Saturday when Gregor Townsend’s team take on Italy in Rome.

While his performance as a half-time substitute against France last month was not enough to prevent the Scots sliding to a 36-17 defeat, there were enough encouraging signs to suggest the Cumnock man will be involved again this weekend.

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The 29-year-old is relishing his return to international rugby after injury issues and some difficult times at Edinburgh under Richard Cockerill where he found his sense of adventure curbed.

The departure last summer of Cockerill and the arrival of Mike Blair has seen Bennett flourish again, with the capital side playing a brand of attacking rugby more in tune with the player’s instincts.

Bennett said his opportunities to play to his strengths under Cockerill were “more limited”.

“I had to adapt the way I played to suit, and I did that. It meant I didn’t get too many opportunities to do what I do best but I gave it my all,” he said.

While his long absence from the Scotland set-up was a cause for concern, Bennett’s desire to play for his country never waned.

Mark Bennett scores his first Scotland try, against Italy during the 2015 Six Nations defeat at Murrayfield. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“The fire was always there but that doesn’t mean I didn’t doubt myself and there were plenty times I probably did think I was done internationally, but I stuck to my guns and here we are,” he said.

Bennett has mixed memories of facing the Italians. He was part of the Scotland side that lost to the Azzurri in 2015 - their last victory in the Six Nations - and it was a bittersweet occasion for the player.

“What I remember from that day was my first international try,” he said. “An intercept, and I know we started strongly and I think Italy scored two tries in the last 10-15 minutes off the driving maul. They really put us to the sword there physically.”

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Mark Bennett's form for Edinburgh this season has led to a Scotland recall. Picture: Paul Devlin / SNS
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Twelve months later he helped Vern Cotter’s team extract revenge, winning 36-20 at the Stadio Olimpico.

In between, he managed to fit in another try against the Italians, in a World Cup warm-up match in Edinburgh which Scotland won 48-7.

Bennett went on to become a breakout star of the 2015 World Cup, scoring three tries in four appearances, including one in the dying minutes of the quarter-final against Australia when Scotland came within seconds of reaching the last four.

While the likes of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray have been fixtures in the national side since, Bennett faded from the scene. He has enjoyed linking up again with his old comrades.

Mark Bennett made his international return as a replacement against France. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

“It was funny, you haven’t seen them for a while but nothing changes,” he said. “They’re exactly the same as they’ve always been.

“I’ve played with Hoggy, I’ve played with Jonny since I was 13-14 years old. It was just great seeing them again, really nice getting to catch up with them off the field and then on the field it was just the same as always.”

If there’s a sense of making up for lost time, Bennett feels he has plenty still to give. His form for Edinburgh has been excellent and it looks increasingly likely he will be used to try to unlock the Italian defence on Saturday as Scotland bid to get back on track after the losses to Wales and France.

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“It’s been a good season for me, we’ve played some exciting rugby at Edinburgh,” he said. “I think that’s given me the opportunities to be me. I think that’s what you saw in the second half against France, I got the ball and I was just doing what I do. I absolutely loved it, and I’m hopeful to be involved again.”

Bennett’s selection would likely come at the expense of Chris Harris, a mainstay in the No 13 jersey under Townsend in recent seasons. While the Gloucester man’s strengths lie chiefly in defence, Townsend may go for a bolder approach against an Italian side who have gone seven years without a victory in the Six Nations.

Bennett feels he has benefited from working with Harris and can learn from his defensive expertise.

Mark Bennett has a kickabout during Scotland training. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)â€(R)

“It’s a part of my game which is not the most natural,” said the Ayrshire man. “I’m much more of an attack-minded player. I know I can defend well but it’s not a super-strength of mine, like it is for Chris.

“I know that I can do things on the other side of the ball that perhaps he wouldn’t do, so for me it’s not a case of thinking that I have to be the best defender on the pitch. What I bring is elsewhere.

“But the one thing I will say is that I’ve never really worked with Chris up until now and he does defend bloody well. I’ve seen it at training and he is good. It’s been brilliant to train alongside him and learn from him. It’s a good challenge.

“And the one thing I’ve picked up from him is that he’s never ever stressed. It might not look like that on the pitch but he’s always calm and under control, even when there are bombs going off round about him.”

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Older and wiser he may be but Bennett believes he still has enough vigour to make his mark at this level and is desperate to show it against Italy.

“I’m still young. Over the last few years this is something I’ve been gunning for and not been able to achieve. It was incredible to be back out there [against France] and I absolutely loved it. If I get the opportunity this weekend it’s one I’ll savour.”

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