Bennett to fight for starting berth
January 28, 2012
Huw Bennett has taken full advantage of Matthew Rees' absence © Getty Images
The 28-year-old Ospreys hooker will win his 50th cap when he next pulls on the red jersey, but faces a anxious wait, along with Scarlets front-rower Rees, to see who gets handed the starting role when Wales travel to Dublin for their Six Nations opener against Ireland on Sunday week.
Rees captained Wales during last year's tournament, and had looked set to lead his country to the World Cup in New Zealand, only for a neck injury to strike and rule him out of contention. That left Bennett as coach Warren Gatland's first choice, and he took his chance with both hands by turning in arguably his finest displays in the Test arena as Wales went on their memorable march to the semi-finals.
Bennett held on to the jersey for the December meeting with Australia, with Rees coming off the bench after returning from his injury, but the Osprey knows just how badly his rival, and fellow squad member Ken Owens, will want to push him down the pecking order for the pivotal Aviva Stadium clash.
"Myself, Ken and Matthew have a healthy rivalry, we are good friends and they are both great players," said Bennett. "There is no doubting Matthew is one of the leaders in this squad and respected by everyone.
"His absence meant I got my chance at the World Cup, Ken also made his international debut and Lloyd Burns played a vital role as well. I was given the starting berth and it was up to me to prove I deserved it.
"I welcomed the challenge and the opportunity and I think I did okay. The team certainly reached the heights in terms of getting through to that semi-final but we also feel we have unfinished business and we have more to offer. Now with Matthew back in the squad we are pushing each other and neither of us want to give up that starting jersey."
Wales are approaching the end of their pre-tournament training camp in Gdansk, Poland, where the squad have been put through their paces and made use of cryotherapy chambers where temperatures can go as low as minus 140 degrees Celsius.
The use of the chambers helps players' recovery from training and was seen by Gatland as a key element in Wales' World Cup preparations when they spent two 10-day camps in Spala. And while Bennett welcomes the impact the camp has had, he is keen to point out that it is the players, and not the ice chambers, that are ultimately responsible for any benefits seen on the field.
Bennett said: "One of the key things about being out here in Poland is that we are able to concentrate on our rugby preparations 24 hours a day. There are no distractions out here and, personally, I know that going to Spala last year made a definite positive impact on me physically and there is also a psychological impact.
"There's no magic wand, the 'cryo' would be no good without the hard work either side of it. We won't know if what we have done here has had an effect until we play, but success at international level is about very small margins and we know we are giving ourselves the best chance by working hard."
Wales' meeting with Ireland will be a repeat of the World Cup quarter-final in Wellington in October, which Wales won 22-10. But Bennett insists Wales will be taking nothing for granted, and knows they will meet an Ireland side desperate to gain revenge for that reverse and last season's 19-13 Six Nations defeat in Cardiff, where the home side triumphed after a controversial Mike Phillips try was incorrectly allowed to stand.
"We had a lot of praise from the World Cup and we were on a big high when we got back, our challenge now is to maintain that momentum. Things came together for us, we got some good results and got further than people expected but now we need to keep that going," he said.
"Ireland will obviously be looking for revenge, we got the upper hand in New Zealand, but we know you can't judge yourself on previous matches you have to look forward and we will be ready for them next week."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.