HE may have been the only uncapped player included in the Scotland squad for the Viagogo Autumn Tests, but the man who was there to help ride shotgun when Mark Bennett made his breakthrough into the senior game with Glasgow says his former team-mate’s claims for international recognition could no longer be ignored after his scintillating two-try display for Warriors in their 37-10 mauling of Bath at the weekend in the European Champions Cup.
Former Scotland centre Graeme Morrison supplied the grizzled rugby nous and physicality to help nurture an 18-year-old Bennett through a rugby baptism of fire when he lined up outside the former Scotland centre at the Royal Dublin Showgrounds for a torrid 80 minutes in which Warriors were beaten 38-3 by Leinster on 6 May, 2011.
Yet even although it was a game Morrison would rather forget, he admits that the impression made on him by the then understated youngster from Cumnock was memorable. Now, two seasons after his own career was ended early, at just 30, by a knee injury, Morrison has watched his outstanding former young team-mate develop into one of the most ruthless finishers in the Guinness Pro12.
While Morrison’s admiration for his former sidekick has been heightened by Bennett’s brilliant double-try performance against Bath, which was all the more remarkable for the mental fortitude it demonstrated after the young back had been stretchered off at Ulster following what looked, at the time, a serious neck injury. “Mark made his debut alongside me and right away I was impressed with him and could see he was very talented and had a big future ahead of him,” said Morrison.
“The other thing about Mark is that he has tremendous strength and mental courage. When I saw him get injured against Ulster 11 days back, I really feared the worst.
“But for him then to dust himself down and go again seven days later against Bath just underlines how strong Mark is mentally. The fact he then scored two tries against a side of their quality and physicality really was something special after the fright he would have suffered at Ulster. So it is no surprise to me that Mark is in the Scotland squad. He is there very much on merit. But I guess Mark’s performance against Bath really sealed his inclusion and, when you are scoring the types of try he did, you are very good value for your call-up.”
As he dissected Bennett’s game, Morrison made it clear that his former team-mate could well give the Scotland backline an extra cutting edge this autumn, as Vern Cotter’s men prepare to face Argentina, the All Blacks and Tonga.
“Mark has great speed and strength but what really stood out for me was his balance and his exceptional footwork. He also has a great eye for a gap and just runs tremendous lines,” said Morrison. “Mark is a quiet young man, very focused and has always worked really hard on his game, so it is no surprise that you are starting to really see him come into his own now at 21.”
Morrison is a veteran of some of Glasgow’s finest displays in Europe, like the high-watermark Heineken Cup defeat of Toulouse in 2009 at the Stade Ernest-Wallon and the 13-13 draw with Montpellier in France in 2011.
While he savoured Saturday’s success over Bath, Morrison admitted this may be Warriors’ best chance yet to graduate from the pool stages of European rugby’s elite competition for the first time.
“I don’t think there has been a better opportunity for Glasgow,” said Morrison. “Obviously the old adage about winning your home games is true and the victory against Bath was even more significant in that it was the first game of the European Rugby Champions Cup campaign. So that has given the boys a great platform going to Montpellier and Glasgow have a belief about them that will serve them well at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir on Saturday night.
Morrison admits it is hard to prophesy just what will await Gregor Townsend’s side when they touch down in France on Saturday evening. He said: “It’s tough to say how Montpellier’s defeat at Toulouse will affect them. In the past, if a French side had felt they were going to struggle in the old Heineken Cup, they would hold something back for the Top 14 and maybe prioritise. But, that said, we are only one game in and it was an away match at Toulouse, so I believe it is more likely that Montpellier will throw everything they have at Glasgow this weekend.”