Tuesday 17 October 2017

Bent wakes up to a whole new ball game

Management on the defensive as Kiwi walks off plane and straight into the Ireland squad

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WHEN Michael Bent woke up yesterday morning and opened his curtains, he could be forgiven for wondering if he was still dreaming.

Having never been to Ireland before touching down on Sunday, the New Zealander was whisked from the airport to Carton House where he and his girlfriend got an early night to try and shake off some jet lag.

He arose to take in his surrounds at the 18th century mansion and its picturesque expanse of land, its golf course and facilities.

He then took breakfast with the Ireland national team who he now calls his colleagues.

As first impressions go, it can't have been bad. This is what happens when you're a talented tighthead prop with an Irish grandmother.

It wasn't all golf and spa treatments for the new man, of course. If he is to make his debut against South Africa next weekend, he needs a crash course in the Irish way of doing things.

Different

New Zealand provincial tournament the ITM Cup is strong, but facing the Springboks at Lansdowne Road is a different level.

If he gets the nod ahead of Declan Fitzpatrick to back Mike Ross up from the bench, then he could be sitting next to Richardt Strauss, the South African hooker who will this week qualify for Ireland through residency.

It is a brave new dawn for the Irish set-up who have turned to imports to strengthen the playing base. It is a road the soccer team has taken many times, but while the IRFU have dabbled with names like Tom Court, Isaac Boss, Dion O'Cuinneagain and Mike Mullins, nobody has ever arrived off the plane and gone straight into the national squad.

Ireland manager Michael Kearney came prepared to yesterday's press conference, armed with a nuggets of information about the new recruit.

Bent's maternal grandmother was a Rathmines native who joined the British war effort in Wales where she met her future husband. He had recently joined the New Zealand air force and she went with him.

Two generations on, her grandson has joined his sister on the east coast of Ireland. A former entrant in the Taranaki Rose of Tralee, Kim Bent has been living in Dublin for a number of years. She also plays the tin whistle, the media were informed.

His credentials having been established, the nub of the issue was reached.

How does a guy who has never been to Ireland, who the Ireland coaching ticket have seen only on Sky Sports at ungodly hours, go straight into the match-day squad to face the Boks?

And how are the Irish players who he will leapfrog to the top of the queue like Tony Buckley, John Andress, Jamie Hagan and Ronan Loughney supposed to react?

"There was a bit of thought and consideration put into it alright," Kearney admitted.

"But it was felt that, No 1, he is the holder of an Ireland passport, and is qualified to play for Ireland. Others came through the same way, although maybe not just landing in Ireland and being brought straight into an Irish squad.

"But, the fact that he was match-fit and playing up to two weeks ago was a pretty massive consideration with the injuries we have."

AGGRIEVED

Ulster's Declan Fitzpatrick may feel a little aggrieved himself, having done well on his debut in New Zealand last June. The tighthead has struggled with a medial ligament injury this campaign and now has a new rival in town.

He will be given the opportunity to again prove his fitness for Ulster against Edinburgh on Friday night, but Kearney wasn't prepared to establish that the 29-year-old, who won two caps last summer, is ahead in the pecking order. Bent could also be released this weekend to play for Leinster against the Ospreys on Sunday.

"In fairness to Declan Fitzpatrick, he came on tour to New Zealand, played in the first Test and did well," the manager said. "He was unfortunate to get injured earlier this season, but he did come through against Ulster and we would hope that he will get more game time with Ulster this weekend.

"But I wouldn't be in a position to say how Declan (Kidney) is thinking with regards pecking order.

"I think selection will depend on how training goes and how the rest of the guys come through. We have three tightheads, Mike Ross, Declan Fitzpatrick and Michael Bent. So, we'll see how that goes. It (Bent playing) is certainly a possibility and we will have to wait and see."

The 6ft 1ins, 18-and-a-half stone Kiwi came into consideration when Leinster put the word out that they were on the look-out for Irish-qualified players operating in the southern hemisphere. Agent Karl Hogan came up with Bent and the rest is history.

"He's been on the radar for a number of months," Kearney explained.

"Leinster put out feelers to a few agents around the world to come up with any Ireland-qualified players through the grandparent rule.

"An agent in Dublin (Hogan) came up with Michael Bent. Greg Feek had knowledge of him from his days at the Hurricanes and checked him out. Leinster spoke to him and he was very keen to come over."

Having heard about his Rose of Tralee, tin-whistle-playing sister, Donncha O'Callaghan was only too keen to meet Bent at lunch and get stuck in to welcoming the newcomer with some slagging.

The players, the veteran second-row explained, just want to play with the best players and field the best team. Accents and background count for little.

"My personal opinion is that you want to have strongest team, you want players who can go out and perform at the top level. I don't think its bending the rules in any way, it is something that other countries have been using an awful long time that maybe we don't look into an awful lot," he explained.

"I remember (English-born) Kevin Maggs from my first cap. The way he spoke at captain's meeting, he couldn't come across as more passionate, he wanted to go out give it his all in every match.

"I don't know Michael and Richardt yet as people, but as you get to know them, you hope they care as much and find a motivation.

"It is a good policy, it is always the best players who play and let's pick from what we can."

Whether it works remains to be seen. Bent ticks a lot of boxes and Ireland have a tighthead crisis but the record of New Zealand props arriving from the ITM Cup is a mixed one at best.

If he makes his debut against South Africa on Saturday week, the 26-year-old faces a sink-or-swim moment.

The same applies, one suspects, to the coaches who have thrown him in at the deep end.

Irish Independent

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