Rugby: Bennett will treasure chance to face Pirates

Mark Bennett has been sidelined since suffering a fractured toe in early December. Picture: Kate Chandler
Mark Bennett has been sidelined since suffering a fractured toe in early December. Picture: Kate Chandler
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TWO months after Mark Bennett was crossing his fingers hoping for an international debut against Australia he will be lining up in Penzance back in the colours of his old club Ayr.

But he could just as quickly be back bidding to play for Scotland in the RBS Six Nations Championship if it all goes well.

The Glasgow centre is one of a handful of professional players released to the Premier One club for the resumption of the British and Irish Cup this weekend. Another face familiar to the Millbrae faithful, Gordon Reid, returns for the game against the Cornish Pirates, while former Heriot’s hooker Fraser Brown, who did make his full Scotland debut in 2013, is being given a run-out, in the back row at least to start with, after sitting on the fringes at the Warriors this season.

Bennett opened the season well, starting five of Glasgow’s first six games, including the first Heineken Cup match away to Toulon, and pushed himself into contention for the outside centre berth in Scotland’s autumn Tests. He was on the verge of a call-up against the Wallabies as wing Tommy Seymour struggled with injury but, when his Glasgow team-mate was passed fit, he was stood down.

The 20-year-old from Cumnock had just agreed terms on a new three-year contract with Glasgow, having returned to the club from Clermont Auvergne the previous year, and he was released to join an injury-hit Scotland Sevens squad in South Africa at the start of December.

However, that was where his troubles began as he suffered a fractured toe in the tournament and has since been on the sidelines.

“This is a great opportunity for Mark to get back in action,” said Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend. “He is actually back a week earlier than we thought he would be because he was only back in full training last week, so having the chance to play in a good club competition with Ayr is a boost to him, Ayr and to us.”

Ayr have struggled to find the consistency that took them to the Premier One title last season, currently occupying fourth in the league with five defeats and just four games remaining, but they were boosted by a win over Ulster Ravens in the British and Irish Cup at home and lost by just 12 points on their last long trip south, to Jersey.

They face a sterner test at the Mennaye Field, having gone down 53-10 to the largely professional Pirates in the home game, and with some players unable to play as the Sunday game and Monday return north affects their work and university exam commitments.

Dean Kelbrick will captain the side, while Cammy Taylor earns his place on the wing. Stewart Walker and Danny McCluskey step up to a bench that includes Regional Academy player Ben Johnston, a former Ayr youngster released by Marr RFC to assist with his development.

Ayr coach Peter Laverie is hopeful that the Glasgow additions will strengthen the side, if they can find the Pirates under the recent floods that have swept the south of England.

“The Cornish Pirates have assured us that they are still attached to the mainland and the pitch is playable following the recent weather problems,” he said.

“We are travelling down on Saturday morning and are looking forward to attending the Exeter v Glasgow Heineken Cup fixture that afternoon. But we are aware of the big game awaiting us on Sunday afternoon at Mennaye Field. Although we scored two excellent tries at Millbrae the Pirates ran out comfortable winners.

“However, our players enjoy the British and Irish Cup and relish the challenge and will be having a real go at quality opposition. These matches offer a significant test and let players and clubs see where they have to get to on a consistent basis, which can only be good for our game.”

The first Scottish side back in cup action are Stirling County, who also head to the deep south of England aiming for revenge against Plymouth Albion tonight, while Edinburgh Accies are preparing for an historic Raeburn Place meeting with London Scottish, the two clubs who have produced most Scotland internationalists, on Saturday (2pm), with Gala kicking off at 3pm at Netherdale against Leeds Carnegie.

Both Scottish teams have also been boosted by the release of a core of professionals, Accies including their former wing Jamie Farndale who is now on Edinburgh’s books as well as the front row trio of Alex Allan, Stuart McInally and Lewis Niven, lock Robert McAlpine and an impressive back row of Hamish Watson, Ross Rennie and Mike Coman. Alex Blair is also back from injury and starts on the Accies bench.

Edinburgh have also extended a welcome to London Scottish supporters to double-up and make the short trip from Stockbridge to Murrayfield and take in Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup match against Perpignan, which kicks off at 6pm, with half-price tickets available through the London Scottish website until midnight tonight.

Down in the Borders, Gala this week have an Edinburgh sextet starting – James Hilterbrand, Ben Toolis, Sean Cox, Nikki Walker and Sam Beard, alongside former Maroons prop now at the capital club Ewan McQuillin – and returning stand-off Harry Leonard and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne listed among the replacements.

Full previews of those games will appear in tomorrow’s edition of The Scotsman.