MARK Bennett will face far more formidable opponents than the Southern Kings over the coming years, but Friday night’s match at Myreside was pretty much an ideal first outing for the centre after 10 months on the sidelines. Making his Edinburgh debut in the 37-7 PRO14 victory, the Scotland international defended well, showed a few glimpses of his old eye for a break, and perhaps most importantly came off the pitch at the end feeling happy to be back and certain that the timing for his return had been correct.
He was tired after playing for the full 80 minutes, of course, but, having fought his way back from a serious knee injury, that pleasure was his over-riding emotion. As his match fitness grows over the coming weeks, Bennett may begin to think seriously about winning the chance to add to the 20 Scotland caps he already has. For the time being, however, it is all simply about working hard, enjoying his rugby, and contributing as much as he can to his new club – with the next stop being the Challenge Cup double-header against Stade Francais this week and next.
“It was great to be back out there,” the 24-year-old said after the bonus-point win that kept Edinburgh in the chase for a Conference B play-off place. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s tough when you’re training with the boys every day but not actually getting a chance to be out there.
“I love playing rugby, and that’s what I got to do. It’s been a long time, so I was determined to enjoy it.
“It went well. We got the bonus point win in rubbish conditions. We ground it out, which was what we needed to do.”
Bennett at his best, of course, can do a lot more than grind things out. He may have taken time to settle in the wet conditions, and dropped a couple of balls early on, but he became more assertive as the match continued. The fitter he gets, the more assertive he will become, forcing opponents to keep an ever closer watch on him.
“I just love playing, so I just want to get a run of games and get match fit,” he continued when asked about his hopes or plans for the rest of the season. “As much as it went OK on Friday, I was tired and my calves were ready to go at the end. I got through it, which was the main thing for that game. I’ll be looking to build that match sharpness in the next few weeks.
“I just need to play – I’m not worried,” he continued when asked specifically about his hopes of a Scotland recall. “If I’m playing well, everything else will take care of itself. First things first, I need to be playing here, keep my head down and keep working away.”
Having been back in full training for a full two weeks, Bennett might have been considered for a place in the Edinburgh squad for the second 1872 Cup match at least. But Richard Cockerill decided that a game against his old club Glasgow was not the right setting for Bennett to make his return in, and now at least the player himself agrees.
“I would have loved the chance to play in the derbies, but it wasn’t to be. Much as I hate to say it, it was probably a good thing. I got an extra couple of weeks of fitness, an extra couple of weeks of training.
“I felt sharp-ish on Friday, apart from dropping the ball a few times. I’m like a kid at Christmas: as soon as I got the chance to run about with the boys I was delighted.
“It’s different for me here. At Glasgow, I was always the youngster in that back line whereas I’ve come through here and I’m not any more. It’s a different experience and I’ve found it weird being one of the older boys.
“When I say older, I mean with the really young back line we’ve got. It gives me a chance to be a bit more of a leader, take a bit more control, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
As far as Cockerill himself is concerned, Bennett is making his comeback at exactly the right time. With that workmanlike win behind him, the centre can now concentrate on the tougher task that is Friday’s first game against Stade Francais. A win for Edinburgh and they are definitely through to the quarter-finals – indeed, even a loss would be enough if they picked up two bonus points and Stade got none.
The coach, however, is not interested in exploring the permutations of a defeat, or in working out what his team might have to do if the outcome is to be determined in the last game of the pool campaign, in Paris on Saturday week. Nor will he speculate too much on how strong a side will be fielded by the French club, who managed to lose to Krasny Yar in their opening match after selecting a second string. He just wants to get it right first time, regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the opposition.
“The next two weeks are really big games for us,” the coach said. “We come here next Friday and we have to win. If we do that, we’re in the quarter-finals and that’s what we’re aiming to do.
“We’ve just got to prepare really well, and whatever Stade bring, however they take it, however seriously or not, we’ve got to make sure we put our best game out on the field. They had a big game against Montpellier on Saturday away from home. “They’re fourth from bottom in the Top 14. They’ve got a good squad, a good playing group, it’s just who they pick. They’ve not picked particularly their first string [in the Challenge Cup], and I’m sure they’ll be concentrating on the Top 14, but they’re a good enough side, if they get it right, to win.”