Mark Bennett is desperate for a Scotland recall. His return to full fitness and top form has been timely, and he will surely have featured in Gregor Townsend’s thinking ahead of tomorrow’s preliminary squad announcement.
However, he knows that he faces stiff opposition, with Townsend having a host of options at centre. That being the case, Bennett is taking nothing for granted. And, he insists, he doesn’t know where he stands relative to his rivals for a squad berth.
“I’m just doing my thing,” he says. “I’d love to be involved. That’s obviously the aim. You want to play at as high a level as you can. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been there. I want to be there but whether I am or not is out of my hands.”
Bennett’s latest showing for Edinburgh included a hand in one of Edinburgh’s two tries and a smart finish to score the other as the capital side lost on European Challenge Cup duty at Bordeaux-Begles last weekend. The fact that he raced over in the dying minutes of a tough physical contest was a sign that he is reaping the benefits of regular game time and an injury-free run.
While he will no doubt have an eye on the outcome of Townsend’s deliberations, his immediate focus is on Saturday’s decisive pool match against Agen at BT Murrayfield. Bennett and his colleagues know what is needed to bag a place in the knockout stage of the competition.
“We’re in a great spot in the group still. We’ve got a home game where we’ve got to go out and try to get all the points then see where that takes us”, he says.
Bennett’s contribution at the Stade Chaban-Delmas was the latest evidence that he has finally shaken off a string of nightmare injuries that threatened to derail his career, and is again operating at full power. It says much for the player’s character that he has bounced back from serious problems with a knee, a bicep and a hamstring. Last summer was his first full pre-season for several years, and he has built on that with regular game time to force his way back into the reckoning for international selection.
He admits that watching the World Cup from afar was difficult, and it underlined the extent of the challenge he faces. Even at Edinburgh, there are numerous contenders for places, with Bennett and fellow international hopeful Matt Scott coming under pressure from James Johnstone and George Taylor, as well as Chris Dean, who is currently injured. Add in Glasgow’s Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Pete Horne and Nick Grigg, plus Rory Hutchinson of Northampton Saints, Gloucester’s Chris Harris and Duncan Taylor of Saracens and it quickly becomes evident that Townsend has a pleasant selection headache.
The difficulty in earning the nod from that list is not lost on Bennett. “There’s a lot of competition”, he acknowledges. “There’s a lot of quality centres in Scotland, which means there is going to be that competition for places. You’ve just got to keep trying to do the best you can week in and week out.”
So, while Bennett desperately wants to be back in the international fold after an injury-free run that is now into its second season, he is prepared to wait. “Playing rugby is important for me. It has been two years. I’ve absolutely loved getting back on the pitch regularly,” he said.
“It’s been great fun and obviously that’s the main goal. I need to just keep working away and hopefully I’ll get back in there at some point.”
After many setbacks, Bennett has learned not to set his expectations too high. That approach can bring unexpected rewards. Four years ago, he featured in the Great Britain sevens squad that lost to Fiji in the final of the Olympic Games tournament in Brazil. His invitation to join the squad came as a surprise, and his inclusion was only confirmed shortly before the event. He would relish a repeat opportunity in Tokyo later this year.
“Rio was incredible, so it’s something that if the opportunity arises I would seriously consider”, he says. “But at the minute I’ve not thought that far ahead to be honest.”