Thursday 18 July 2019

Criticism affected me but no regrets about move - Bent

Michael Bent has been one of Leinster's best performers this term. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Michael Bent has been one of Leinster's best performers this term. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

It is difficult now to believe that one man could have riled so many people in the Irish rugby community.

Michael Bent had only come to Ireland because his old Taranaki buddy Greg Feek suggested Leinster might have a hole that could be filled on a regular basis.

Feek knew Bent was carrying an Irish passport but he was more concerned with the 120kg or so of weight he would freight north.

That was April 2012; Ireland was still gripped by Twickenham Terror; when Mike Ross had lurched from the sodden English turf and Ireland's scrum had concertinaed like an unfinished jelly.

A few months later, Bent got the phone call that would transform his life. Declan Kidney drafted him into an Ireland squad that, along with much of the public, was already losing their faith in the Grand Slam-winning coach; the Corkman would be gone sooner rather than later.

Many wanted Bent to be tossed out too. The Irish public first saw him on the sports pages of the newspapers awkwardly hacking a sliotar around Carton House; Irish legends choked on their Cornflakes.

It was the worst-staged Paddywhackery since the '200 years of Irish Cops' float featured in the Simpsons; if you don't recall, the cops proceeded to beat up the crowd (we won't mention the 'The Drunken Irish Novelists of Springfield').

Fumed

Keith Wood fumed. "How in the name of Jesus are we getting to the point where a guy flies into the country and he will play for Ireland?" he asked.

Bent made his debut; performed more than adequately against South Africa and then sang 'Danny Boy' on the team bus. By the end of the season though, he was marooned on Leinster's B&I team.

Despite his unwitting involvement in the kitsch unveiling that leaned heavily on 'the craic', Bent remained committed to Leinster and his Irish roots.

However, most of the Irish rugby community, so conveniently, didn't take long to divorce him from their thoughts.

Leinster have remained loyal; in a side devoid of Cian Healy and Jack McGrath, he has demonstrated his growing versatility by starring on the loosehead side against a formidable Castres front-row.

In truth, he has been one of their best performers this term, as glowingly confirmed by Matt O'Connor following the province's best scrummaging display of the season, away to Cardiff a fortnight ago.

"He has done a fantastic job for us," says the Australian. "He played a lot of rugby for us in my first season last year in really big games for us when the international lads were away.

"Without his efforts, I can guarantee you we wouldn't have finished top of the league.

"He is invaluable in the group. Again, this year, with front-rowers injured, he plays both sides, he's played a lot of 80 minutes for us. He's done a fantastic job for us.

"He will be very, very important for us as we plot our path to the Champions Cup quarter-finals."

More than two years on from being repeatedly ridiculed by so many former professionals and pundits, Bent seems at ease but the criticism still stings.

"It was pretty tough initially," says the man who has succeeded in seeking equilibrium in both the scrum and in life.

"I blocked a lot of it out for the most part. I knew that I'd come over here to just focus on what I was doing and not worry too much about everything else that was going on around me.

"I tried to do as best as I could and still now, it is just a matter of focusing on what I am doing and keep showing I can improve myself. I am feeling happy with what I am doing and how things are going.

"I had to look at my performance from where I was going. I started off well and perhaps fell off a wee bit.

"Then there were a couple of injuries last season that made it quite tough to get back into things, to build it back up.

"I have been constantly talking to the coaches about what it is they want from me and just working on those key areas and I am pretty happy with that at the moment.

"The criticism I got affected my confidence. As far as the scrum goes, initially things started to not go too well and I tried to change too many things."

Chiefly, Bent had been used to a style of scrummaging in New Zealand's domestic competition which effectively limited the set-piece to its once traditional role of merely restarting the game.

In the northern hemisphere, though, he struggled to adapt to the often more tactical nuances of the push, particularly before the change in laws, whereby teams contested lengthily at scrum time in order to eke out penalties or significant yardage from a strong shove.

"I was trying to sort something out and I was over-correcting, and then something else would slip," he recalls.

"So this season in particular has been quite good, I just tried to clear my head and focus on the basics and it seems to have to work quite well for me.

"I never felt it was a mistake coming here. I've really enjoyed my time here so far and I'd like to think I'll continue to play here for a few years to come.

Relatives

"So I feel quite at home here, I've met up with distant relatives I have here and have a good network here. I'm quite happy.

"I know there are people that have bad opinions and there are other people who are very supportive but I haven't really dwelled on that sort of thing too much."

He doesn't like to easily concede that he prefers the loosehead side but it is obvious that he is revelling there.

"I do enjoy both," he says. "I did prefer tight but it feels good on both sides and I can go either side really.

"There are good points and bad points to both sides but, yeah, I am happy to go either side really. There are things I enjoy about both sides.

"My form at the moment is good. When the set-piece is going well throughout the game it gives you confidence.

"If you can get that sorted out early on then yes, you have the confidence to go out and really put a lot of energy into the other aspects of the game.

"Versatility is quite a handy thing to have. I know if you've got an injury, it can go down anywhere so it's handy to have a guy that knows the details and can go either."

He even eyes a World Cup; "Yeah, it's in my sights like the Champions Cup with Leinster. Why not?"

Irish rugby may be a tad more welcoming then.

Irish Independent

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