Phil Bennett, legendary captain of the Wales and British and Irish Lions who has passed away at the age of 73, has elevated rugby union to an art form.
Smooth-footed and blessed with a brilliant rugby spirit, he is regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.
At a time when international rugby was less frequently played, Bennett stopped two Five Nations Grand Slams and three Triple Crowns in his 29 Wales caps.
He also commanded his land and the lions, and blinded himself to the barbarians.
During the Baa-Baas’ win over New Zealand in 1973, Bennett demonstrated his mesmerizing footwork to kick-start the move that culminated in a try for Gareth Edwards, who is often described as the greatest in rugby union history.
The audacity to take on four All Blacks just yards from his own try-line—and the agility to dance past them and leave them in his wake—exemplified Bennett’s brilliance.
So was his 1977 attempt for Wales against Scotland, another great team move that Bennett capped off with a signature step and run. As esteemed commentator Bill McLaren said at the time, it was “absolute magic”.
Bennett was born in Felinfoel, a village near Llanelli, on October 24, 1948.
He worked in the local steel mill during his teens and as a promising schoolboy football player he was offered a trial by West Ham.
Once Bennett turned to rugby, he quickly rose to fame with his beloved Llanelli and was part of the team that defeated the mighty All Blacks in 1972.
By then he was already a full international, having made his debut in Wales in 1969 as the country’s first substitute.
Bennett had to bide his time to establish himself as Wales’ first choice as the 10 jersey at the time belonged to another giant of the game, the great Barry John.
When John retired in 1972 at just 27 years old, Bennett emerged from his shadow and made the fly-half position his own.
He wore 10 for the Lions on their historic undefeated tour of South Africa in 1974, amassed 103 points and scored a spectacular solo attempt in the second test in Pretoria.
Even Bennett’s place on the Wales side was not guaranteed, however. In 1975 he was dropped for John Bevan but an injury to the Aberavon fly-half opened the door for his return.
With Bennett back on the team, Wales won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1976 and when Wales skipper Mervyn Davies’ career ended the following year it was Bennett who took on the captaincy.
A cheerful and affable character, Bennett gave a glimpse of his tougher side when he delivered a memorable team speech before Wales’ Five Nations match against England in 1977.
“They took our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our houses and live in them for two weeks every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing,” sounded his impassioned battle cry.
“We have been exploited, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you play this afternoon.”
Later that year, Bennett led the Lions on their tour of New Zealand and although that series ended in defeat, there was still time for a glorious closing chapter.
With a Grand Slam on the line as France came to Cardiff on the final weekend of the Five Nations of 1978, Captain Bennett took the opportunity brilliantly with two attempts to take his side to a 16-7 win and a second clean sweep in three years. to lead .
As the cheering Wales fans celebrated a third Grand Slam of the 1970s, little did they know about the conversation Bennett had with his halfback partner and arguably the best player of them all, Gareth Edwards, in the house dressing room after the final. whistle.
“I knew it would be my last game, but I didn’t tell anyone beforehand,” Bennett recalled years later.
“I didn’t want this game to be about me, this was a great team from Wales, we had just won the triple Triple Crown and were going for a second Grand Slam in two years.
“So there wasn’t a big farewell to the public or anything like that.
“Then I walked into the dressing room and went to Gareth and thanked Gareth for everything and he replied, ‘Damn, you’re coming out too. Me too’.”
That was Phil Bennett. Understated, modest, class to the last.
His last game was in 1981 after a Llanelli club career of 413 appearances with 2,535 points including 131 tries.
After retiring, he worked as an pundit for BBC Wales and was a regular spectator at his home village’s amateur club Felinfoel RFC, and chaired his beloved Scarlets.
Bennett was as unassuming on the sidelines at Felinfoel as he was warm and approachable in the media room at the Principality Stadium.
He carried his greatness lightly, generously with his time with fans, journalists and just about everyone he ever met.
While Bennett himself may never have sung his own praises, the sports world recognized his special quality.
He was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005 and will forever be remembered as one of the best to have played the game.