Mark Bennett ‘could be the difference to Edinburgh’s season’

Mark Bennett
Mark Bennett
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Ten months after injuring knee ligaments in that Calcutta Cup disaster at Twickenham, Mark Bennett finally makes his professional debut for Edinburgh at Myreside tonight when the Southern Kings come to town.

The classy Scotland centre and, let’s not forget, Olympic silver medalist at sevens, made the switch in the summer and you have to hope he bucks the trend.

While players migrating from east to west, Al Kellock and Dougie Hall spring to mind, usually make a decent fist of things the same cannot always be said for those going in the opposite direction. Duncan Weir was out of sorts long before he became injured while the two Bryce brothers [Kevin and Glenn] and Sean Kennedy are all struggling to win meaningful game time. With 20 international caps and six Test tries to his credit Bennett should side step that problem and his new coach is evidently excited to have him back in harness.

“He was one of our big signings then obviously he got injured playing for Scotland in the Six Nations,” said Richard Cockerill when quizzed about the midfielder.

“It’s a debut for him and he’s clearly a quality player through playing for the national team and for Glasgow in a championship-winning side and also on the sevens circuit. Huge amount of talent, huge amount of potential – he’s still a very young player in real terms. To get him back and get him up to speed will be potentially the difference in our season.

“He’s had two full training weeks. He was desperate to play in the last two weeks but I felt it wasn’t quite right that he did that. So he’s been training well, he’s been training fully. We’ve been very specific about his rehabilitation.

“So he’ll start because he’s ready to start. And also he gets a full training week with us preparing to play. And however long he lasts, he lasts. If that’s 40 minutes, it’s 40. If that’s 60, great. If that’s 80, we’ll see.”

It seemed like a ridiculous thing to ask of someone who has done nothing but watch rugby for ten months but the question was asked all the same. Would Bennett appear in Scotland’s Six Nations squad?

“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Cockerill replied. “but depending upon circumstances who knows? The thing with Mark is that he just wants to get into this team and play, and play well. That is the first thought from him, which is good.

“The national side of it. . . Scotland have done well, they have plenty of quality there. However, Mark Bennett fully fit, playing well, will certainly be pushing for selection.”

Cockerill admitted that Bennett might have played in twin legs of the 1872 Cup held over the last two weekends had the opposition and expected intensity been a little less formidable.

In an attempt to get his club’s season back on track after last weekend’s performance Cockerill has selected a strong looking side to play the worst team in the league, everywhere but the front row where he has picked the last men standing.

There is no sign of Allan Dell, WP Nel or Ally Dickinson. Darryl Marfo sees a specialist about his back next week but at least Rory Sutherland is expected to return for next weekend’s European tie against Paris. Simon Berghan’s six week ban runs out on the day Scotland face Wales in Cardiff so you doubt Gregor Townsend will throw him to the Dragons after six weeks on the sidelines.

“The reality is that there’s not a huge amount of rugby left,” said Cockerill. “We’re at the tail end of the season straight after the Six Nations. I want to finish as high up the conference as possible, certainly if we can’t get into the top three then I want to be in fourth position, and I want to be challenging for a home play-off to be challenging for Europe.

“We’ve got this week and two games after it, which are all important, and then there’s a week’s rest for those players not with the national team, so it’s important that we get some momentum.

“It’s important that we get the four or five points on offer from the Kings if that’s possible. Then we have Stade and if we beat Stade then that will qualify us for a European quarter-final, if not a home one. Then we could adjust selection for the away game, or if Stade beat us next week we might need to go fully loaded to Paris to win.”

Magnus Bradbury starts in the back row with Vili Mata poised to make an impact off the bench. Dougie Fife comes in on the right wing in place of Damien Hoyland and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne drops out of the match day squad after his wife gave birth to son Hugo earlier in the week; a tongue-twister for any commentator should the little lad follow in dad’s footsteps.

Edinburgh: Blair Kinghorn; Dougie Fife, Mark Bennett, Phil Burleigh, Duhan van der Merwe; Jaco van der Walt, Nathan Fowles, Jordan Lay, Stuart McInally (c), Murray McCallum, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Cornell du Preez.

Replacements: Cameron Fenton, Elliot Millar-Mills, Matt Shields, Fraser McKenzie, Viliame Mata, Sean Kennedy, Chris Dean, Damien Hoyland.