AFTER a frustrating and truncated start to his international career, Mark Bennett is more than ready to make an impact on the Six Nations Championship.
After having little involvement on his debut for Scotland in the win over Argentina three months ago, the Glasgow Warriors centre was then injured a week later in the early stages of the game against New Zealand. Now fully fit again, Bennett is braced for the most demanding of challenges this evening in the Stade de France, where, despite his lack of international experience, he hopes to benefit from the knowledge of French rugby he acquired during his season with ASM Clermont Auvergne, the club that until last year was coached by Vern Cotter.
Three of the French starting line-up were team-mates of Bennett’s then, and he knows other members of the squad, too. He may never have played in Paris before, but he is still well aware of what to expect should the home team get into their stride.
“Four years ago I played my first game for the under-20s out in France,” said Bennett, who turned 22 on Tuesday. “It was just a completely different atmosphere to anything I’d experienced.
“The crowd were wild. There was banging on the drums, there was a band playing, everybody was chanting away when you were kicking – it’s just not what we were used to.
“This is the next step up from that. So again I think it’s going to be an atmosphere I’ve never experienced.
“It’s going to be second to none. There’s going to be a huge atmosphere. It’s going to be emotional and the French are going to be really fired up from everything that’s going on.
“But, at the same time, the French just love their rugby, so if we go out there, play some good rugby and really take them on, they will get on our side as well. So as much as we want to silence them at the start, hopefully by the end they’ll be cheering for us.”
That is what happened four years ago to Richie Gray, although it should be noted that, despite his virtuoso display, the shock-headed lock still ended up on the losing side. And Bennett knows that, in any case, before he and his team-mates get the chance to play some expansive rugby, they will have to snuff out the home team’s attacking threat. That is something he is confident of achieving, and is particularly looking forward to getting to grips with three Clermont players – Camille Lopez, Damien Chouly and Wesley Fofana.
“I trained with them every day. It will be great to line up against them. Hopefully I’ll know a bit more about them than you expect, so I would hope I can cut down them. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.
“I played with Fofana a few times in pre-season. He’s a very good player. If you go high on him he’s going to fend you off – he’s really strong up top.
“At the same time he’s got real pace and that ability to beat a man. So you need to really be aware of that.
“I think he’s a great player and he’s been performing well. Teams are maybe a bit more prepared and know they need to tighten up around him when he’s got the ball. Before maybe they were set up to defend everyone else and he was just taking that chance.”
Still a teenager during his year with Clermont, Bennett turned out for the under-23s, gaining a flavour of the improvisational skills which come as second nature to French players. “It was a very skilful league. Maybe the physicality wasn’t quite the same as Prem One because it was a lot of younger boys, but the skill level was there. So you had to be on your game and really sharp.
“The execution was always really high and teams would take their chances. So it was really clinical.
“I actually played with Loann Goujon, who’s on the bench. He played No 8 for us at the under-23s. He’s got an incredible fend on him, so you can’t give him the opportunity to get it out there or he will sit you down, get you out the way.”
In addition to Cotter and Bennett, other members of the Scotland squad have a working knowledge of French, something that the centre believes could come in useful. “There’s definitely times when you can understand things out on the pitch. It’s more second nature. Like when you’re attacking and you can hear them calling to drift when they were coming up hard. In a rugby context your natural instinct tells you ‘This is what’s happening’. So there are little things that will play into our favour.”
The biggest thing in Bennett’s favour, however, is his own gift for the game. He may be lightly built compared to the likes of Fofana and his fellow centre Mathieu Bastareaud, but he can punch above his weight in defence and is one of the team’s most incisive attackers.
And, after that false start in the autumn, he is eager to cement his place in the Scotland team. “It’s every player’s dream to make their debut for their country, so for me personally to make it at Murrayfield was unbelievable,” he added.
“After coming through as a kid to watch all the games, to actually be out there was just something else.
“In the Argentina game I wasn’t that involved in the game. There wasn’t much ball came to the backs, and they didn’t really attack in the midfield either.
“Then in the New Zealand game I was out after about nine minutes. So I’m still relatively new to this. But I’ve got a taste now, so I’m a bit more prepared and expect what’s coming.”