Phil Bennett – the little man who became a giant of Welsh rugby
There were many things that defined the 1970s – bell bottoms, platform shoes, glam rock – and Welsh rugby success.
Then Wales were world beaters. Dubbed the golden era, it was with good reason.
In that period the nation’s rugby team won seven Five Nations Championships (either outright or shared) contained within that epochal run were three Grand Slams and five Triple Crowns.
The names such as Edwards, Bennett, JJ and JPR were as synonymous with Welsh rugby as John, Paul, George and Ringo were to music, and in Edwards and Bennett, Wales possessed a duo every bit as gifted as Lennon and McCartney.
The Welsh rugby side of the ‘70s defined Wales. They were our rock stars in an age when nationhood was still a concept yet to be fully explored.
Our heroes are formed in the crystalline memories of our idyllic youth and in mine, Phil Bennett stood head and shoulders above all others.
Ironic, of course, given he was small in stature, a little man in a land of giants, but none had a bigger heart – and none were so entertaining to watch.
Anyone who saw Phil Bennett play would attest that he was poetry in motion.
He was a showman synonymous with expansive running rugby, playing the game with untold joy and bravery.
His trademark was his sidestep – a move that oft defied the laws of physics, such was the sense of disbelief of those watching and those poor unfortunates having to stop him.
Not since Elvis Presley first walked out onto a stage had anyone witnessed such devastating hips.
Simply put Phil Bennett could sidestep you in a cupboard.
Possessing speed of mind and quickness of feet, his pace was frightening. Equipped with dazzling acceleration, he spotted a gap in much the same way as Stephen Hawking discovered black holes.
A mastery talent, with a wizardly intent he could conjure up magic where mere mortals would flounder in his wake.
Astonishingly, this rugby polymath was also a wonderful kicker with a powder keg boot.
It appeared that the Felinfoel-born Phil Bennett was always destined for greatness.
He even made history on his very first cap for Wales in Paris in 1969 when he became the first replacement in international rugby.
After Barry John’s shock retirement in 1972, the Llanelli fly half made the Wales number 10 position his own, creating a formidable partnership with Gareth Edwards that was pure stardust.
Can there be any other Welsh player who has beaten the All Blacks three times – for Llanelli (31 October 1972), the Barbarians (27 January 1973) and the British and Irish Lions (9 July 1977)?
To emphasize his legend, underline his genius and demonstrate his ability to conjure up magic, Bennett was also pivotal in two of the greatest moments in rugby history.
Scorer of the greatest Wales try in history against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1977 , he was also the instigator of what is viewed as the greatest try in history for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at the Arms Park in 1973.
Against the All Blacks, Bennett picked the ball up near to his own try line with his back turned to the opposition, he twisted and turned with all the dizzying intent of a fairground waltzer, jinking and jostling his way out of the flailing grasp of three All Blacks, before finding JPR Williams – so beginning the greatest try in history.
When Gareth Edwards finally dived in at the corner of the Arms Park pitch, legends were born.
Four years later against Scotland, Bennett finished off a sublime move involving five Welsh players and some dazzling skills that only enhanced his already iconic stature.
He accelerated like a Formula One car flying off the grid, leaving the Scots with twisted blood trailing in his wake clutching at thin air. At one point three dumbfounded Scottish players are seen staring forlornly into the grass wondering just what had happened to them.
If you thought Hal Robson Kanu sending three Belgium players for a hot dog at Euro 2016 was the epitome of turning a defence inside out, you need to witness this.
Both tries were rugby as an art form and in Phil Bennett, a study in the poise and elegance of fly half rugby.
His size and low centre of gravity an obvious asset, this was rugby with balletic grace. The Arms Park, Bennett’s Covent Garden.
He had the sort of dancing feet that were a mesmerizing mix of Rudolph Nuryev, Fred Astaire and Lionel Messi.
His moves were in classical form as if a conductor were orchestrating his every move.
A fiercely proud Welshman, he also knew what Welsh rugby meant to the people of his country.
Looking back on the Scotland game in 1977 where Wales were chasing the Triple Crown, the number 10 had said: “Wales were going through some tough times economically back then. Factories and mines were closing and people were losing their jobs. Yet, the commitment to watching Wales play was still incredible.
“I can remember on Saturday morning in Edinburgh, standing on a balcony in our team hotel and looking out along the length of Princes Street and seeing a sea of supporters, dressed in red shirts or scarves, or rosettes. I realised how much effort they had gone through and I thought: ‘We can’t let these people down’.”
That same year, Bennett, then captain of Wales, had delivered a rousing speech to his side ahead of a clash with England, that would forever live on in the annals of Welsh rugby history.
“Look what these bastards have done to Wales,” he said. “They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”
He understood Wales and Wales understood him. It was a relationship that transcended rugby.
After he hung up his boots he became an accomplished broadcaster, his Carmarthenshire tones rich with warmth, just like the man himself.
He was an orator, a familiar and trusted voice with an innate grasp of the game.
He was also a phenomenal storyteller.
His cultural relevance never lost its importance, his status always afforded due reverence. See Manic Street Preachers’ name-checking the number 10 in their song “Prologue to History” for ample proof.
On the field he was a superstar, off it he wore his fame lightly. Humble, friendly, he always had time for everyone.
Perhaps that’s what sums up the man that was Phil Bennett.
He loved the game of rugby and he loved people. And in return the game of rugby and people loved him.
There can be no finer epitaph.
To paraphrase the words that adorn the statue of Phil Bennett that was unveiled in April.
‘He was a sporting legend who travelled the world, but whose heart never left his beloved village of Felinfoel’.
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