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Bennett primed for centre stage with Glasgow Warriors

Long before Stuart Hogg emerged as a player with the skills and pace to transform the attacking capability of Glasgow Warriors and Scotland, the name of another youngster was being bandied about with some excitement.

Mark Bennett is keen to  prove his French experience has made him a better player.  Picture: SNS
Mark Bennett is keen to prove his French experience has made him a better player. Picture: SNS

So much so that by the time Glasgow got around to making Mark Bennett an offer two years ago after giving him a taste of what was then Magners League rugby, one of the biggest clubs in Europe had already made him one that he could not refuse.

Things may not have gone perfectly for the young Ayrshireman at Clermont Auvergne, ruptured knee ligaments soon after he joined them leading to a six-month lay off. He returned to action to help their under-23 side win their league, scoring a try in the final, but returned to Glasgow on loan earlier this season and has had to be patient again.

What feels like an overdue return to Glasgow colours will end tomorrow evening, however, after he was named in their starting line-up for the potentially crucial visit to Newport-Gwent Dragons on the back of a man-of-the-match performance for Scotland's under-20 side in last Friday's win over Italy.

"He's worth the wait," Gregor Townsend, Warriors' head coach, claimed yesterday. "Physically, he is back to the level, or past the level, that he was before his injury because he did take a while to recover – an ACL is the worst injury you can have and it has taken him a while to get back to top pace. I've seen him at training and with Stirling in the British & Irish Cup, when I saw his game against Bedford and he was probably the best player on the field. He has carried that on to the 20s and has earned his opportunity."

Harking back to his own experience of spending five years in France, Townsend believes that a more rounded player and individual will be on view than represented Glasgow two years ago.

"He has impressed me with the way he set about working to improve from when I was first involved with him a couple of years ago. He had undoubted abilities, acceleration, an eye for a gap, strong in the contact. What I think he has added to his game over the last season with Clermont is a linking ability and his catching and passing.

"His experience at 18 years old to go out there . . . as a life experience he would have had to grow up quite quickly as well as learning a new language, adapting to new people and coaching systems. He will be a much more mature person."

Whether or not that would have happened anyway, given Bennett's precocious talent, is certainly worthy of debate. After all, without ever leaving the Warriors, former Scotland under-20s team-mate Hogg, who was relatively unknown when Bennett faced Leinster for Glasgow in May 2011, has, meantime, made such progress that he is now considered Scotland's strongest contender for a place on this season's British & Irish Lions tour.

Admittedly, Bennett, who turned 20 last week, benefited from training with some of Europe's finest players, but while he was away Hogg was playing against others, pitched into the Pro12 as he was at the start of last season, then the national side midway through it.

Either way, the prospect of both performing for many years to come in a Scotland back line that has at last begun to look as if it carries real menace, is mouthwatering.

While Bennett shares the view that he has gained in some ways from his time in France, he is now effectively a free agent who acknowledges that he has still to prove that it benefited his rugby. "It was the first time that I had been away from home, so it has definitely helped me as a person and if it has helped my rugby then that will be an added bonus," he said.

"It was a different style playing on the hard pitch all the time, a bit more free-flowing. It brought on the skills and I did a lot of skill work and with the guys who were round about it was hard not to learn from them."

Having returned to Scotland to get additional game time, it has not been ideal that, having been back in Scotland for three months, he is only making his return to Pro12 action now. He is philosophical.

"It has been frustrating but at the same time the team has been playing well so it has not really been as frustrating as it would have been if we were not going so well. I have been playing most weeks with Stirling and then the last couple of weeks I have been playing with the under-20s so I have been getting some game time."

His inclusion in Glasgow's starting XV is one of six changes made to the side that registered a bonus point win over Zebre in Italy last weekend with Henry Pyrgos, Dunc Weir and Pat McArthur all returning from international duty, while James Eddie and Canadian international winger DTH van der Merwe are also recalled.

Townsend noted that Bennett will be the 50th player to represent Glasgow this season, a demonstration of how the club's resources have been transformed, bringing a depth of squad that, in turn, means they must be expected to sustain their challenge to host a Pro12 play-off match for the first time.

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