Surrounded by family, Welsh rugby legend Phil Bennett (73) passed away peacefully at his home last night, and with his departure from this earth, brings closure to the spark that ignited my love of rugby.
It was 1974. I was a tender 10. Main beach at Ballito; a balmy winter’s day, as only our KZN coastline can so effortlessly provide. On the back of a Peter Stuyvesant 30’s pack, my maternal uncle Graham was busy scribbling my dad Roy, and his, Springbok team for the third Test match against the British Lions…
“The Lions are already 2-0 up in the series; the series is just about lost, how are we going to stop Bennett?” said my Dad. “Damned if I know,” was uncle G’s forlorn response. “The way he ran rings around us with that second Test try was incredible. He is capable of scoring tries from deep inside his own half!”
“Uncle Graham, who is this guy?” was my enquiry, as the Ballito surf pounded in just metres away.
“My boy, Phil Bennett is the Welsh wizard, he’s a flyhalf, same position you play at Merchiston, and he’s just unstoppable.”
That was the magic moment.
We didn’t have TV in SA in 1974. I spent unforgettable time with my dad, Uncle G and my brothers at the Ballito cottage, glued to the radio, listening to the third and fourth Test commentaries.
We were already 3-0 down in the 4-Test series when we somehow managed to snatch a highly controversial 13-13 draw in the fourth Test to prevent a whitewash. The Cook/Dockray family were delighted. Me even more so: “At least we stopped Bennett from winning, Dad!” I shouted: “We did it!”
But Phil Bennett, aka “Benny”, was secretly “My” player.
Just 25 then, Benny possessed a blindingly deceptive, thrilling sidestep that was poetic in its execution, leaving seasoned tacklers grasping at thin air as he waltzed his way away.
Threading through despairing posses of defenders. I was mesmerised by the seemingly effortless (as is the wont of all great sportsmen) ease and grace of the man.
When television and TV sets arrived in 1976, I got my mom Alicia to take me to Dicks Radio in Longmarket Street in Pietermaritzburg, as they showed reels of the ’74 British Lions Boks series in the shop window.
Every day I was there, glued to the window. It got to the point where the manager told my mom that he would call the police unless she kept me away.
Aah, but Phil Bennett, what a player!
Bennett played his part (see video above), too, in what is widely considered “The Greatest Try Of All Time”, scored by the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973, collecting the ball in his own 25 (now 22) and producing a couple of astonishing sidesteps to start the move, which rooted defenders to the spot, and led to Gareth Edwards’ famous try.
As quoted here from The Telegraph, Phil’s motivational speech to his Welsh teammates ahead of a Five Nations game against England in 1977 is considered one of the “fire-and-brimstone” greatest.
Ordinarily a man of great warmth and generosity, this was fiery Phil at his best: “Look what these bastards have done to Wales! 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, controlled and punished by the English! And that’s who you are playing this afternoon!”
Bennett, along with his halfback partner, the legendary scrumhalf Gareth Edwards were pivotal in Wales’s dominance of the Five Nations in the 1970s. Phil Bennet made his first foray into Welsh folklore at the age of 20, yet he might have had to wait years longer had arguably the greatest Welsh flyhalf of them all, Barry John, not retired at the young age of 27 while at the peak of his powers, citing the unwelcome media attention of “living in a goldfish bowl”.
One can only wonder what Barry John would have made of the media attention today. I actually met Barry in the early 2000’s when I was working at the Western Mail in Cardiff, for whom he wrote a weekly rugby column. A good bloke, Barry John.
1974 British Lions captain Willie John McBride once described his key teammate Phil Bennett thus: “He was to rugby what Ian Botham was to cricket, Johan Cruyff to football and Ilie Nastase to tennis. He had a certain magic, an undefinable quality. He had the audacity to attempt the unusual and to lift spectators out of their seats.”
Go well, Phil Bennett. Thank you for inspiring a wide-eyed 10-year-old Natal boy’s love of rugby.
Some Phil Bennett Facts
Played 413 times for his beloved Llanelli Scarlets (the Welsh valley where he was accorded an almost messianic status)
Phil scored 131 tries and 2 535 points overall, and was in the famous Llanelli team that beat the 1972 All Blacks
He captain the 1977 British Lions to New Zealand
There is a statue of Phil Bennett in Felinfoel, his home village
In the 1979 Queen’s Honours List, Phil was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
In 2005 Phil was accorded a place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame
* What a man! What a player!