MARK Bennett will at last make his debut for Edinburgh tonight, and the Scotland centre’s return to action could make a decisive difference to the team’s season, according to Richard Cockerill.
Bennett has been training fully for the past fortnight, but the head coach decided that the intensity of either of the 1872 Cup matches against Glasgow was the wrong occasion for him to make his comeback after 10 months out injured. Tonight’s PRO14 meeting with the Southern Kings, by contrast, looks like the perfect start for the former Warriors player: it is a match Edinburgh should win, and provided they keep their shape Bennett, with the insightful passing of Phil Burleigh inside him, should get a few chances in decent position to have a go at the South Africans’ defence.
Provided he clears this hurdle safely, Bennett will then be expected to play a big role in the Challenge Cup double-header against Stade Francais in which his team are trying to secure a spot in the quarter-finals. After that, presuming he does not get an immediate recall to the Scotland squad, the 24-year-old will have a vital string of league games as Edinburgh chase a place in the end-of-season play-offs, either for the PRO14 title itself by finishing in the top three in their conference, or for the final position in next season’s Champions Cup by coming fourth.
“To get him back and get him up to speed will be potentially the difference in our season,” Cockerill said yesterday after announcing his team. “The back line is somewhere we targeted to strengthen last summer. He was one of our big signings then obviously he got injured playing for Scotland in the Six Nations. Huge amount of talent, huge amount of potential – he’s still a very young player in real terms.
“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 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.
“I’ll manage him on how good the game is and the weather conditions and all those other things. We’ve just got to get him out there. The season’s halfway through, so we’ve got to get him up to speed as soon as we can. He was desperate to play in the last two weeks but I felt it wasn’t quite right that he did that.
“The conversation with Mark was that it would be unfair to put him into a game of the quality of the Glasgow game when he hasn’t played for 10 months. It wasn’t fair on him, because he wouldn’t be as sharp as he would need to be, and it wouldn’t be fair on the team, because guys like James Johnstone have done exceptionally well. If it was a different game with less quality opposition, we may have got an opportunity sooner.”
Bennett has won 20 caps since making his debut in 2014, and was shortlisted for World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year award after the 2015 World Cup. Since then, however, Huw Jones has established himself as a key centre, so there will certainly be no automatic return to the national squad for the Edinburgh player. Cockerill acknowledged that a match-fit Bennett on top of his game would have to be considered by Scotland coach Gregor Townsend, but suggested his player would not have much of a chance of forcing is way in for the start of the Six Nations.
“I wouldn’t have thought so, but depending on circumstances, who knows?,” Cockerill said. “The thing with Mark is that he just wants to get into this team and play – and play well. That’s the first thought for him, which is good. The national side part of it: Scotland have done well, they’ve got lots of quality there. However, Mark Bennett fully fit, playing well, will certainly be pushing for international selection, I’m sure.”
The centre is one of six changes to the side that began last weekend’s 17-0 loss at Scotstoun last weekend, with the introduction of Dougie Fife for Damien Hoyland on the wing and the replacement of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne by Nathan Fowles at scrum-half being the other two alterations in the backs. Sean Kennedy is back-up to Fowles, Hidalgo-Clyne having been given some time off as his partner has just given birth.
In the front row, Samoan international Jordan Lay starts at loosehead after making his debut off the bench last week, while Murray McCallum moves to tighthead, taking the place of Matt Shields. Magnus Bradbury and Cornell du Preez return to the back row at blindside and No 8 respectively, taking the places of Jamie Ritchie, who has a shoulder strain, and Bill Mata, who drops to the bench.
Edinburgh (v Southern Kings at Myreside, Friday 5 January, kick-off 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, P Burleigh, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, N Fowles; J Lay, S McInally, M McCallum, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, H Watson, C du Preez. Substitutes: C Fenton, E Millar-Mills, M Shields, F McKenzie, V Mata, S Kennedy, C Dean, D Hoyland.
Southern Kings: N Dukisa; Y Penxe, B Klaasen, M du Toit, A Bock; K Coleman, R van Rooyen; S Ferreira, S Coetzee, R de Klerk, J van Vuuren, D van Schalkwyk, B Eitel, M Burger, R Lerm. Substitutes: T Balekile, N Gumede, P Scholtz, L Welemu, F Ngoza, G Rowan or G Masimla, H Klaasen, M Banda.