The second coming of Michael Bent

Ireland’s teamsheet in Cardiff last Saturday held within it no shortage of heart-warming subplots.

The second coming of Michael Bent

Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan both pulled on green jerseys for the first time in over two years, Andrew Trimble did likewise after a 14-month hiatus and Chris Henry traced similar steps back after his heart scare and surgery last November.

Michael Bent had no injuries holding him back from international duty, but the sight of the Kiwi-born prop running onto the Millennium Stadium turf after an hour against Wales was no less notable given the road he had to travel.

The bullet points are well-polished by now, most obviously how he was parachuted into Carton House to provide cover for Mike Ross at tighthead for the November internationals in 2012 and the shock expressed by Keith Wood and others at how someone could be capped with such alacrity.

Talk of Plastic Paddies was rife, though Bent’s case for inclusion was stronger than many recent converts given his maternal grandmother hailed from Rathmines, and that combined with a sense of national embarrassment that an international SOS was required in the first place.

Bent, of course, fared well in those early brief cameos against South Africa and Argentina before his stock plummeted.

Yet before too long he was struggling to get meaningful game time at Leinster and found himself knocking about in the British & Irish Cup, a busted flush in the public imagination.

Looking back on it, those two Ireland caps didn’t help. Leinster forwards coach at the time was Jonno Gibbes who all but admitted that the initial flurry of publicity — remember those pictures of him holding a hurley?— all but deprived him of a low-key acclimatisation period.

An Ireland recall must have seemed unlikely at the time.

“I wasn’t going to say, ‘it’s over’ until it was actually over,” Bent said ahead of Saturday’s second warm-up game, against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. “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.

“I wanted to 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 achieve what I’d set the goal for.”

He certainly did.

Bent’s progression at club level has been apparent from something as basic as his game stats. On the up every year, they peaked at 23 appearances last term, the majority of them from the off, and a first European Cup start was followed by three more before the season was out.

Still, he was “blown away” to be offered the chance of a second coming with Ireland and the texts were dispatched to family in New Zealand — and no doubt to his sister Kim, who also lives in Ireland — when he made the matchday 23. A solid 20 minutes in Cardiff at tighthead completed the journey back to favour and the 29-year-old is now a serious contender for one of the likely 17 spots reserved for forwards in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad thanks to his ability to cover at both loose and tight.

That’s not new to him — he did it for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby before his switch northwards — but it is no mean feat to be a viable option on both sides of the front row at test level where the margins for error are so slim.

No-one needs reminding how Tom Court, a loosehead for Ulster at the time, suffered in Twickenham three years ago when he had to stand in for an injured Mike Ross. Bent, for his part, has also spent considerable time at loosehead with his province.

“I was really happy with how it went,” he said of last Saturday’s tighthead audition. “I wouldn’t say it was daunting. During the pre-season 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. Through the week leading up to the match, through the scrum sessions, I was feeling quite comfortable working with Bestie (Rory Best) there and I was happy with the way I was hitting it.”

Bent probably isn’t the only man to feel vindicated by his revival. Greg Feek, now Ireland scrum coach, held that portfolio with Leinster in 2012 and was the man most closely associated with his arrival. Gibbes was also a vocal supporter at Leinster before he left for Clermont Auvergne while former lead coach Matt O’Connor once described the prop as “invaluable”.

Maybe Schmidt will yet feel the same.

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