MARK Bennett has revealed that Edinburgh plan to play a more expansive game this season after becoming bogged down in too conservative a style at times during the last campaign. And, having enjoyed a full pre-season’s training for the first time in several years, the centre is confident that he can play a significant role in turning that plan into reality.
At 26, Bennett is far from being a veteran, but, as one of the most experienced members of the squad to remain in the country while the World Cup is on, he knows he will have greater responsibility than before for being one of the team’s on-field leaders. Part of that responsibility will involve helping integrate some of the team’s summer signings, who he is confident will be a considerable help in implementing the new, more ambitious game plan.
“We’re missing a lot of players but we’ve also had a lot of guys come in who are looking good,” the centre said. “We’ve got all young boys who are working hard to be ready to make that step up. So I think we’ve got an exciting squad and we’re trying to change the way we’re wanting to play a bit more and the guys who have come in will really help that as well.
“I think it’s a bit more responsibility for the backs in general. The way our shape ended up at the end of last season, we weren’t getting the ball wide because we weren’t giving ourselves opportunities to get the ball wide, it just wasn’t on.
“It wasn’t how we envisioned it at the start of the year, it just got a bit stodgier towards the end. So for us, it’s just about organising, demanding that shape to then allow us to do what we do best. I think we saw glimpses against [London] Scottish – we got into some good positions and we’ve got backs who are dangerous.”
Bennett himself clearly fits into that “dangerous back” category, and while much of his career to date has been punctuated by injury, he believes himself to be fitter and stronger than ever as he looks forward to Saturday’s home friendly against Ospreys and then the start of the PRO14 season a fortnight later. The fact he was not away on tour with any representative side has also helped give him a clear run-up to the coming campaign, and his aim over the coming months is simply to get a consistent run of games with Edinburgh.
“I’ve done my first pre-season since I was at Clermont [in 2011-12], so it’s been a while,” he continued. “There’s been a different loading to coming off the back of under-20s, summer tours and the like. It’s been a tougher spell, but it’s been enjoyable.
“And I’m fit. I’m strong, so hopefully I can transfer that onto the pitch. I’m well conditioned – I’m not saying I wasn’t before, but I’ve had an extended period to get myself into good shape, as good as I can be. So for me, I’m just looking forward to getting playing games again.
“ I’ve had a 16 week pre-season, which has been great. Like I said, it’s been hard. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed all of it, but I’ve got myself fit, and strong, which gives me less chance of breaking.
“I just want to play games. I can’t remember how many [I’ve played] in the last two seasons, but it’s not many. I think it’s about 16 games, which is nothing. So for me it’s about hopefully getting an extended run of games and from that finding a bit of form.”
Finding a bit of form – and helping others find form too. The days of being billed as a prodigiously talented rookie do not feel that distant to Bennett, but he knows that changed circumstances mean he now has to take on the role of a senior statesman – at least while the likes of Stuart McInally, WP Nel and John Barclay are away on business in Japan.
“It’s weird – I’ve gone from always being the youngster to I’m really not any more – and I’m only 26. I mean, I’ve played a fair bit of rugby even though I’ve not [played much] in the last few years. I’ve played a lot of rugby: I know what I’m about.
“So I think it’s just having that confidence now for me to try and step up. I led at the age groups and what not, so it’s just about doing that now – and knowing that I know what I’m talking about.”