Michael Bent bounces back after overcoming early struggles
New Zealand-born prop knows Scotland game may be last chance to get place in squad
Prop Michael Bent: “Some times were tougher than others but I always stayed positive and kept pushing hard to get back.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
His third Test appearance in the green represents a validation of hard work and perseverance in the face of a groundswell of unsympathetic criticism. The 29-year-old New Zealand-born prop – the Irish qualification comes from his Rathmines-born grandmother – had a fraught introduction to Irish rugby that wasn’t of his own making.
Initially recruited to Leinster by then scrum coach Greg Feek, who now fulfils that role with Ireland, Bent was parachuted into the Ireland squad before he had even played a provincial match. The outcry was deafening. Bent represented the collateral damage in the verbal crossfire.
He didn’t pick himself for the national squad, nor did he choose the circumstances. He came on as a replacement against South Africa and against the Pumas two weeks later. What lent substance to the mutterings was that he initially struggled to adapt to the demands of provincial rugby and by May 2013 he was part of a Leinster A side that won the British & Irish Cup.
“When I first turned up there was a bunch of new faces and a new group I didn’t know too well. Being here a few seasons now I have got to know the guys reasonably well. I’ve been in out and out of the squad and I have got to know the various guys, that’s one side of it which isn’t as much of a challenge now.
“The challenge is to learn the content, work hard, impress Joe [Schmidt] and the coaches. I have been working pretty hard over the last couple of seasons and always had it as a target of mine. I was absolutely blown away to get back out there and pull that jersey on for a few minutes.
“The last couple of seasons I’ve been pushing hard and really trying to improve my skills; improve all the aspects on the rugby field, really get back to a good 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.
“Personally it’s just about setting targets. If I’m playing rugby then I’m focusing on the rugby, focusing on the plays and putting in a good performance. That’s if I’m in the team.
“If I’m not playing it’s about focusing on increasing my speed, increasing my strength and increasing my fitness, getting satisfaction when I see those results coming through and knowing once I do get the opportunity to play again, I’m going to be in a better physical condition.”
Bent spoke of “his delight” at forcing his way back into contention with the national squad. He’s watched others being given an opportunity and knows that Saturday against Scotland might represent a final chance to press a claim for Schmidt’s 31-man World Cup squad.
He has done the maths. The perception is that Schmidt will take five props. Cian Healy’s injury has distorted the permutations. If Bent can satisfy the Irish coaching team that he can play both sides of the scrum, he offers a strong case for inclusion.
“So whichever role I’m given, I just try to execute those points as best as I can. My processes could differ to other people, but for either side I know what I’m trying to achieve. I was really happy with how it went against Wales, [when he came on at tighthead for Mike Ross].
“During the pre-season and that I was focusing a bit more on the tighthead role so I felt pretty comfortable hitting into the match with what it was I was trying to achieve.”
He’s unequivocal about what it means to play for Ireland. It sustained him through the difficult times. “I mean there were times that were tougher but 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’.
“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 with the team every day, it makes me very proud and I’m just happy to be here.”