MARK Bennett is set to make his comeback this month, and the centre’s return to action – for what will be his Edinburgh debut – could hardly have come at a more opportune time given Robbie Fruean’s impending retirement.
Richard Cockerill declined to say too much during his weekly press conference about Fruean, who was reported at the weekend to be on the verge of retiring because of a persistent heart problem. While the head coach appeared annoyed by the timing of the story, he did not contradict any of the details it contained, saying instead that he would prefer to wait for Fruean himself to decide when the time was right to make an announcement.
Bennett and Fruean are not exactly the same type of centre, but the availability of the former, who has been out since April because of cruciate ligament damage, will at least offer partial compensation for the loss of the New Zealander. Fruean joined Edinburgh in the summer after signing a two-year contract, and the club knew at the time that he would have to be monitored carefully because of a heart condition which has required two operations.
He showed touches of his old form in his first couple of games for his new team, and his experience would have been invaluable had he stayed fit. But he has now been out for some time, and while Cockerill at one point said he had a virus that needed to be dealt with, it is clear that the underlying reason for his continued absence is his heart problem.
“I don’t really want to make any comment on that,” Cockerill said when asked about Fruean. “It’s a private matter for Robbie to deal with and when he’s ready to speak about it he will.
“I think it’s in pretty poor taste that it’s reported, to be fair. That’s all I’ve got to say on it at the moment – it’s a private matter for Robbie that he needs to deal with, and until he’s happy to talk about it, it should remain private. And I think people should respect the privacy that that commands.”
While not explicitly confirming the report that Fruean is about to retire, Cockerill did say he could not see a time when the 29-year-old might be available for selection again. “At this point no, he won’t be available for the foreseeable future,” the coach continued. “So until Robbie’s ready to discuss that, I’d like us all to respect his privacy. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you? I don’t care if you think it is or not, that’s how it’s going to be from my end. Let’s talk about rugby, can we?”
Edinburgh have two home games in the Challenge Cup this weekend and next, and, while the London Irish match on Saturday will come too soon for Bennett, he could feature six days later. “I’m hoping he will play some part next week against Krasny Yar,” Cockerill said of the 24-year-old, who was injured in the Calcutta Cup match, by which time it had been announced that he would leave Glasgow Warriors for Edinburgh at the end of that season.
“Mark coming back in will give us a bit more firepower and physicality. I think he’s quite keen to be fit for the Glasgow games over Christmas. He’s looking very sharp and very determined.
“He’s got a lot of experience, and I think he’d like to share that and help build this team. Maybe at Glasgow, because he wasn’t one of the better-known players, maybe his experience wasn’t as used as he would have liked. I’m looking forward to have him in the squad. He’s an international player, he’s played for Great Britain in the Olympics and in a championship-winning team for Glasgow. He’s a very straight-talking gentleman and I like that about him.”
Bennett’s transfer from west to east came after it was announced that Huw Jones would be joining the Warriors for this season, and there is no doubt that he will have a point to prove when he does return. What is equally beyond doubt is his talent: shortlisted in 2015 for the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award, he was Scotland’s most dangerous attacking player for a time, and is young enough not only to recover his best form but also to improve still further.
Cockerill, for one, believes that Bennett has every chance of adding to his 20 Scotland caps. “Without a doubt,” the coach added. “I think he’ll be better here, because he’ll get to lead and flourish even more. He’s still very young and has a lot to offer.”
Most of the internationals who did not make the trip to South Africa for the two PRO14 games will be available to take on London Irish at Myreside on Saturday. The team for that match will be announced the day before.