Bent keen to seize second chance
Prop's versatility could earn World Cup place
Until last Saturday, Michael Bent's career arc was upside down. Capped within days of touching down in Ireland, he then struggled to hold down a regular place in the Leinster match-day squad and the likelihood of him adding to his two international appearances looked remote.
But the New Zealander knuckled down and settled in for the long haul, biding his time in Leinster's A squad and working on his game so that, when Matt O'Connor needed him last season, he delivered some solid displays.
That put him back on the radar for Joe Schmidt, whose challenge when picking a 31-man squad for next month's World Cup involves some delicate calculations.
Bent's ability to cover both sides of the scrum solves one potential problem for the Kiwi coach, meaning he can take five props across the Irish Sea rather than six, and allowing him more scope for depth in other positions.
The versatile prop has gone by the wayside in the era of 23-man match-day squads, but come World Cup they come in very handy.
Hence Bent's return to the international arena last weekend in Cardiff where he continued Mike Ross's dominance in the scrum and probably did enough to book his place in the squad.
Coming three years after his second cap, getting back to the biggest stage was a big moment for the 29-year-old and a reward for his hard work.
"One hundred per cent, I have been working pretty hard over the last couple of seasons and always had it as a target of mine so, yeah, I was absolutely blown away to get back out there and pull that jersey on for a few minutes under the belt so I was really delighted with that."
Having largely rebuilt his reputation as a loosehead, it was a challenge to take on international props but he was comfortable, even winning a penalty for his side with one big effort.
"I was really happy with how it went. I wouldn't say it was daunting," he explained. "During the pre-season I was focusing a bit more on the tighthead role, so I felt pretty comfortable heading into the match with what it was I was trying to achieve, through the scrum sessions and that, I was feeling quite comfortable working with Bestie (Rory Best) there and I was happy with the way I was hitting it.
"It is what I have been pushing hard to achieve and I was delighted to get another cap. I want to stay here as long as possible and keep playing at this level and absolutely delighted to be back and get another opportunity."
Winning his first cap so soon after landing in Ireland for the first time drew scorn from some quarters, while Bent's subsequent poor Leinster form saw him receive heavy criticism.
It was almost as if the caps worked against him, heaping expectation on a player who hadn't been recruited by Leinster for an instant impact as he settled into his new surrounds.
He qualified to play for the country of his grandmother, who hailed from Rathmines, but his accent grated for some who weren't happy to see him don the green and pose with a hurley in pictures that were carried across the national media.
"I don't think I was a fraud at all," he responds. "It was a massive opportunity for me. The rules are the way that they are and that is they way rugby is, so I didn't sit back and feel I shouldn't be there at all. I was absolutely blown away to have that opportunity and really happy to have it.
"It's massively proud for me. Last week sending messages back to my family to let them know that I had been selected to sit on the bench and had the opportunity to come on, they were absolutely delighted for me.
"It was a very proud moment for me. Just being here and being involved, it makes me very proud."
Ireland kicking coach Richie Murphy knows the New Zealander well from working with him at Leinster and is impressed with the way he has fought back to the highest level.
"The start was obviously quite a difficult situation for him. He came over and he was thrown straight in to a test match, really, wasn't it?" he recalled. "He had a lot of knockers. A lot of people said this guy wasn't good enough. In fairness to Benty, he worked very hard and he has probably turned the corner a little bit and has started coming back the other side. His ability to play both sides of the scrum is a massive advantage.
"He was very effective for Leinster last year and that's why he ended up getting selected back into the squad."
Bent admitted that there were times when he feared he might not get back to the highest level, but he refused to give up on his ambitions.
"I wasn't going to say, 'It's over' until it was actually over," he reflected. "The last couple of seasons I've been pushing hard, and really trying to improve my skills and improve all the aspects on the rugby field, really get back to a good level and come in and put in a few more performances at the top level.
"So I never thought it was all over. Some times were tougher than others but I always stayed positive and kept pushing hard to get back and achieve what I'd set the goal for.
"I never gave up hope, I just kept working hard, I didn't sit back and think to myself, 'Oh, it's all over, I've blown it'. I just kept working hard and just tried to stay as positive as possible.
"I obviously knew (the World Cup) was coming up for quite some time. Going away with a World Cup, I know how a squad operates, and to have someone who is versatile and who covers both sides could be quite good to have in the squad.
"It's worked well at Leinster that I've been able to cover both sides there. Yeah, that's something I've been really pushing hard. To be a genuine option at both sides of the scrum."