Phil Bennett was the Welsh genius who was the best fly-half of all

OBITUARY: The little Welsh genius who was the best fly-half of them all… doctors told Phil Bennett he would never be strong enough to play rugby but his dancing feet floored the All Blacks and allowed him to do things nobody else could

  • Legendary Wales and Lions fly-half Phil Bennett has died at the age of 73
  • He scored 103 points during the British and Irish Lions 1974 tour of South Africa
  • The Welshman was admitted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005
  • Bennet said: ‘The spirit of the game was what mattered more than anything else’

Legendary Wales and Lions fly-half Phil Bennett (pictured in 1977) has died at the age of 73 

Of all the great fly-halves from all over the world, there has never been one quite like Phil Bennett.

The communion of rugby saints glorified for the divine gift of making teams dance to their tune, from Jack Kyle and Cliff Morgan in the early 1950s to Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett more than half a century later, would say amen to that without a murmur of dissent.

For all their Grand Slams and World Cups, they, along with other revered No 10s like Richard Sharp, David Watkins, Barry John, Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh, Jonathan Davies, Gregor Townsend and Jonny Wilkinson, would touch their caps in a deferential nod to one who began his working life as a wages clerk in a steelworks known locally as ‘The Klondike’.

To stand out in the midst of the outstanding requires a very rare talent, all the more so at 5ft 7in and 11 stone. Bennett had shown early signs of it growing up in a council house in the village of Felinfoel, making a mockery of a doctor’s gloomy prognosis that the little boy would never be strong enough to play rugby.

He began making a name for himself in his early teens at Coleshill Secondary Modern in Llanelli. Les Williams, a contemporary who became the town’s rugby historian, remembers the headmaster at his school, Llanelli Secondary Modern, announcing the result of the Coleshill match at assembly: ‘Our boys 6 points, Phil Bennett 27.’

His innate humility never allowed him to think he was that much better, if at all, than his counterpart in the next village and yet he did things which none of those who had gone before him had done, nor those who came after.

He leaves two indelible marks on the history of the sport; the first during a sharp winter’s day at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973, the second some 18 months later on the parched grass of the Springbok rugby shrines during the Lions’ one and only invincible tour.

The captain, Willie John McBride, called Benny ‘the little genius’. The All Blacks called him all the names under the sun and still do because of what he did to them for the Barbarians when a hurtling Gareth Edwards finished off the greatest of all Baa-Baas tries.

It would never have happened had Bennett not conjured up a start even more outrageous than the finish. When Bryan ‘Bee Gee’ Williams, the prototype Samoan superstar, cross-kicked from the right wing, Bennett scurried back towards his own posts to retrieve the bouncing ball.

McBride and his pack, blowing hard after a frenetic all-action start, expected Bennett to give them a breather by kindly hoofing the ball into touch. 

Instead of the safe option, he took the dangerous one as an instinctive reaction to the fearful sound of Alistair Scown hunting him down. The unfortunate flanker would never play for New Zealand again.

Bennett won 29 caps for Wales and helped them win two Five Nations Grand Slams in the 1970s

For the first time in living memory, someone found the nerve to take the All Blacks to the cleaners with a dance routine Fred Astaire would have been hard pushed to match. Within a few mesmerising moments of giving Scown the run-around, Bennett left one All Black diving into thin air and two more going the wrong way.

Three side-steps had torn New Zealand’s defensive system off its hinges. From that day on, McBride never swayed from his view of the ‘Welsh magician’, an opinion confirmed the following year during the Lions’ unbeaten 22-match tour of South Africa.

There seemed no bottom to his bag of tricks, especially when the occasion demanded a climax for the history books as it did at Stradey Park on October 30, 1972 when Llanelli welcomed the All Blacks to the old tin town.

Only Bennett could have struck a longish penalty in such a devilish way that it would double in value. When the ball rebounded off a post, scrum-half Lyn Colling dallied just long enough for the Scarlets’ Lion Roy Bergiers to claim the charge-down try — three points doubled to six, enough to secure a victory for the ages.

Bennett’s sense of fair play set him apart at a time when the sport took a battering from the win-at-all-costs brigade. His defence of the old values was never more pointedly illustrated than when the All Blacks returned to Stradey in 1980.

When Alan Hosie sent off New Zealand lock Graeme Higginson for stamping, Bennett’s impassioned plea persuaded the referee to change his mind with a selfless disregard for the Scarlets’ faint chance of drawing the match.

With memories all too fresh of the Cardiff Test two years earlier when Andy Haden’s notorious dive robbed Wales of a win, Bennett’s instinctive intervention had been prompted for purely altruistic reasons.

‘That was the centenary season of Welsh rugby and the last thing we needed was another major incident involving New Zealand,’ Bennett said. ‘The spirit of the game was what mattered more than anything else.’

There seemed no bottom to his bag of tricks with Bennett shining against the All Blacks

Grant Batty, the firebrand wing who always blazed with attitude-plus, sent Bennett a letter of gratitude for his diplomacy. ‘Thanks for your attitude and action,’ he wrote. ‘Your gesture has done a hell of a lot to restore sanity between New Zealand and Welsh rugby.’

By then, Bennett had retired from Test rugby at the age of 29, saving perhaps his greatest Wales game for the unforgettable 1978 Grand Slam decider against France. Nobody knew it at the time but he had bowed out in the grand old showbiz tradition, leaving the Arms Park multitude clamouring for more.

‘I was pleading with the players to hang in but we needed something extra. All of a sudden the singing broke out and I’d never heard singing like it. I said to the players, “God, listen to this. How can we fail?”’

Bennett had followed the toughest act in the game stepping into Barry John’s shoes following The King’s abrupt abdication and matching his predecessor’s imperious achievements. As Cliff Morgan said: ‘Phil made the game so exciting that you’d have paid an extra £10 at the gate to see him. I loved watching him.’

There were days, few and far between, when the magic deserted him, never more so than when he missed a fusillade of penalties against the All Blacks in 1974. Not long afterwards the Welsh selectors, the Big Five, prompted a public outcry by dropping him from their Five Nations squad.

Suddenly, the world-beating Lions’ No 1 had been relegated to No 3, at best, in Wales. None of the Big Five was big enough to tell him, let alone offer an explanation.

He scored two tries in his final game for Wales during a 16-7 victory over France in 1978

Throughout his life, Bennett had two regrets, that he declined the offer of a scholarship from Llandovery College and, years later, accepted another offer, to captain the Lions in New Zealand in 1977.

Before making the grimmest of tours, Bennett and his wife, Pat, had endured a tragedy of their own, losing their first child, Stuart, 24 hours after his birth. The incessant rain and internal bickering made him yearn for Felinfoel.

‘I should never have accepted the captaincy,’ he said. ‘The pressure of those three months was just too much for me and when the matches were over, I just wanted to leave as soon as I could.’

A longing for home prevented him from accepting offers to pursue alternative careers in other forms of football during his teenage years.

The West Ham of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters offered him a trial at 15 which Benny turned down, ‘horrified’ not at the idea of signing for anyone other than Manchester United but of leaving Felinfoel for London. 

When strangers from Yorkshire came calling bearing gifts from Halifax Rugby League Club for the 17-year-old Bennett, they failed for the same reason.

Bennett the evangelist did more than most to spread the rugby gospel and popularise the game without being paid a penny to play it. The WRU responded with a stinginess which hit rock bottom the day after Bennett’s three penalties had beaten England in the rain at Twickenham. Homeward-bound with wives and girlfriends allowed on board for the first time, the coach stopped for lunch near Swindon.

Bennett was later admitted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in November 2005 

Bennett’s wife Pat ordered gammon and chips which her husband assumed would have been taken care of by the Union as part of the overall meal bill.

‘A few days later I had a letter from the WRU. I could hardly believe it. They’d sent me a bill for £4.50 for Pat’s lunch! I thought that was a bit mean but I paid it.’

How typical of the man not to make a song-and-dance about it and other penny-pinching incidents. ‘I handed my expenses sheet in on one occasion and Bill Clement (WRU secretary) said to me, “Eh, I used to live in Felinfoel. You’ve charged 60 miles to Cardiff. I know it’s 55”.’

He won new admirers during some 30 years of punditry to BBC Wales and via a newspaper column. His humility never wavered.

When he picked his team for the greatest Scarlets’ XV, he told his co-author, former international referee Alun-Wyn Bevan: ‘The No 10 position will not be filled by Phil Bennett. It will be filled by Stephen Jones.’

In the world’s best XV of the 1970s, he picked someone else in his position, Barry John. Bennett had never got above himself and he wasn’t about to break the habit of a lifetime.

As a deadly disease took its toll on his health, thousands prayed for him to find the strength for one more side-step. Tragically, for his wife of 52 years, Pat, sons Steven and James, their families and his legions of fans, it was not to be. There will never be another.




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