MARK BENNETT, the Scotland centre and Olympic medalist, is to make his Edinburgh debut 10 months after tearing knee ligaments when he had been on the pitch for only four minutes in the Six Nations debacle against England at Twickenham.

According to Richard Cockerill, the Edinburgh head coach, Bennett has been cleared to play for a while but the management were anxious to give the player an easier game for his return match after such a lengthy absence – the winless Southern Kings from South Africa, their opponents this evening, fit the bill perfectly. 

Bennett will go straight into the starting XV in a strong-looking Edinburgh side anxious to restore momentum after losing to Glasgow Warriors last weekend.

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“He’s had two full training weeks, he was desperate to play [against Glasgow] but I felt it wasn’t quite right that he did that,” Cockerill explained. “He’s been training well, he’s been training fully. We’ve been very specific about his rehabilitation.

“He’ll start because he’s ready to start – also he gets a full training week with us preparing to play. 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.”

The coach emphasised that the decision to hold him back for this week had nothing to do with the fact Bennett would have been making his debut against his old club, Glasgow Warriors, and everything to do with wanting to play against a lesser side.

“The conversation with Mark was that it would be unfair to put him into a match of the quality of the Glasgow game when he hadn’t played for 10 months,” Cockerill added. “It would not have been 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 lower quality opposition, he may have got an opportunity sooner.”

A recall this week means Bennett has a maximum of three games to try to play his way into contention for Scotland’s Six Nations squad – a tough task but not an impossible one.

“I wouldn’t have thought so but, depending on circumstances, who knows?” Cockerill replied when asked about Bennett’s national chances.

 “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. 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.”

On the whole, changes to the side that battled hard but lost to Glasgow at Scotsoun last week have been kept to a minimum, though Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has been given the weekend off after his partner gave birth to a baby boy, Hugo, on Thursday. He’s played a lot of rugby and his family situation means it’s good to have a bit of time off to spend some time at home when you’re having your first child,” Cockerill noted.

He is replaced by Nathan Fowles, while there is also a recall for Magnus Bradbury in the back row alongside former Southern Kings player Cornell Du Preez as Cockerill uses the undoubted strength he has in the back row to rest some players.

The crisis with props continues, meaning that Murray McCallum switches from loosehead to tighthead, allowing new Samoan signing Jordan Lay to make his first start on the loosehead. Since Edinburgh beat the South Africans 48-21 in Port Elizabeth last month, they have got to be confident of another big win when they play them at home where the cold, and possibly wet, conditions will be a shock for the visitors. 

Cockerill is taking no risks, though. The next three weeks, with this game followed by the back-to-back ones against Stade Francais in the European Challenge Cup, could play a significant role in deciding how good or bad the season will turn out to be. 

“The reality is, there’s not a huge amount of rugby left. We’re at the tail end of the season straight after the Six Nations. I want to finish as high up the [Guinness PRO14] conference as possible – if we can’t get into the top three then I want to be in fourth position [which earns a play-off for Champions Cup rugby next season], and I want to be challenging for a home play-off in Europe.

“It’s important that we get some momentum; that we get the four or five points on offer from the Kings.”