Respect was hard won but departing Leinster man Michael Bent got there in the end

HE HAD COME straight from the airport with luggage in his hands and bags under his eyes. A quiet, modest man, he was just after being named the Taranaki player of the year after a fine season in New Zealand’s domestic championship.

The easiest thing would have been to fire him into a cab and get him to his digs for a bit of kip. Leinster, after all, had signed him on a two-year deal, having tapped up their contacts around the world for Irish-eligible players.

As luck would have it, Michael Bent had an Irish granny. So had Andy Townsend and John Aldridge for that matter but there was considerably less fuss about their elevation to the national football team under Big Jack than there was over this prop from Hawera getting a shout to join Declan Kidney’s set-up in November 2012.

A major difference was that Townsend and Aldridge were widely known to Irish audiences before their arrival whereas Bent wasn’t even a big name in New Zealand having barely featured for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby.

That wasn’t the only issue. The optics of taking him straight from the airport to Carton House to meet up with the Ireland squad just didn’t look good.

Had they handed him a rugby ball the following day in training, it might have quietened things down. Instead someone thought it would be good PR to offer Bent a sliotar and a hurl for a photo op. His sister was a contestant in the Rose of Tralee, the Press were told. She played the tin whistle.

It all sounded a bit twee and hardly the beginning a 26-year-old unknown could have hoped for in a new country. Getting fast-tracked to the national squad invariably rubbed people up the wrong way although to be fair, it was the principle of headhunting a player rather than developing one that annoyed people.

“It can’t be, it can’t be that easy to play for Ireland,” Keith Wood said on Off The Ball. “How in the name of goodness are we getting to the point where a guy flies into the country and plays for Ireland? I find it wrong.”

Others thought the same thing. “Just another step on the slippery slope of the pro game,” wrote Jim Glennon, the former Leinster coach. “Bent should go through the correct process before Ireland selection,” said Matt Williams.

As always, Neil Francis cut to the chase.

“Bent, it seems, will get a run against South Africa and/or Argentina,” the former Ireland lock wrote in his Sunday Independent column. “The best scrummaging sides in the world. If he can’t scrummage then either of these two teams will expose him ruthlessly. I hope for Ireland’s sake he survives and prospers. The pressure is on him straight away. It is important that he has a loaded gun and can shoot straight.”

Francis had found the hurling episode ‘a little corny and condescending’.

He wasn’t alone.

It’s worth bearing all this in mind when you consider what happened last night in the RDS. This time the context couldn’t have been more different.

Bent and Fardy walk off the pitch a final time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Rugby fans weren’t just pleased to see Michael Bent; they were thrilled to see a live game of rugby, 15 months having elapsed since they last got to do so.

Everything seemed novel. The kick-off from Ross Byrne brought a roar. The first tackle of the game generated a bigger one.

When Bent won a 48th minute scrum penalty, there was yet another raucous scream. The loudest one of the night, though, came when he – and fellow retiree, Scott Fardy, walked off the field at 9.28pm. The prop who arrived to sneers in 2012 left to cheers in 2021.

One hundred and fifty nine times he pulled on a Leinster shirt. While his Ireland career – just four caps – didn’t amount to much, his Leinster one did. He played significant parts in six Pro14 championships, a Challenge Cup and a Champions Cup, but did so selflessly.

When younger, better props got called away to the international set-up, he was the one clocking in for the late night Pro14 shifts in November, February and March as Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter checked into the Ireland team room he controversially stayed in back in 2012.

You could see the emotion on his face last night as he said goodbye to professional rugby and the place he’s called home for the last nine years. His child was in his arms, one young enough to have been born here. Dublin clearly isn’t just an address to him. “The place is so special to both of us,” said Fardy afterwards, as Bent battled with his emotions. “I just feel lucky to experience my last game in front of some fans,” said Bent. “To finish like this is great. I am so grateful for the support I have had in my time here.”

Respect goes both ways. During the week Stuart Lancaster made the point how Fardy and Bent’s leadership was never more noticeable than the nights when the team was loaded with youngsters and a calming word was required every now and then.

Bent lifts the 2021 Pro14 title with Toner. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That was their value, something Leo Cullen alluded to when he announced Fardy’s signing back in 2017. “If you think of what the model is here at Leinster, of committing so many resources to the academy to produce good young players, getting someone like Scott Fardy into the group who has 39 Tests, is vital because we need players who can really add to the squad on a much broader scale than just on the field.”

You’d imagine it was easier for Fardy to enjoy the ride than Bent, the Australian featuring in all six finals that Leinster reached in his time with the province, Bent coming on as a sub in just two. Cullen, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“They have both been huge contributors to the success of the last few seasons,” he said after last night’s win over the Dragons.

It wasn’t just medals they won – but respect.