Obituary – Phil Bennett, fly-half for the British and Irish Lions and Legendary Wales

Phil Bennett
Phil Bennett scored 166 point in 29 internationals in Wales, and 44 points during eight Tests in the British or Irish Lions.

Phil Bennett, the legendary Wales and British Lions fly-half and captain, has passed away at the age of just 73. He elevated rugby union into an art form.

He is considered one of the greatest players in rugby, being agile and gifted with a brilliant rugby mind.

Bennett was able to pack two Five Nations Grand Slams as well as three Triple Crowns in his 29 Wales caps, a time when international rugby was less common.

He captained his country and the Lions and was a dazzling ambassador for the Barbarians.

Bennett's spellbinding footwork was a key part of the 1973 Baa-Baas victory over New Zealand. This move led to a try by Gareth Edwards, which is often referred to as the greatest rugby union attempt.

Bennett's genius was illustrated by his courage to face four All Blacks only a few meters from his try line, and his dexterity and ability to dance past them and leave them floundering behind.

His 1977 try for Wales against Scotland was a sweeping move that Bennett concluded with a trademark step-and-run. The eminent commentator Bill McLaren described it as “absolute magical” at the time.

Bennett was born in Felinfoel (a village near Llanelli) on 24 October 1948.

He was a teenager who worked at the local steelworks and was a promising schoolboy footballer when West Ham offered him a trial.

Bennett, who had made the decision to play rugby, quickly became a household name with Llanelli, his love. He was also part of the 1972 All Blacks win.

He was an international by that time, having been appointed as Wales' first replacement in 1969.

Bennett had to wait to be a first-choice Wales fly-half as the 10 jersey he wore at the time belonged in the hands of Barry John, another great player.

Bennett emerged from the shadow of John and took over the fly-half job when he retired at age 27 in 1972.

He wore 10 to the Lions' historic unbeaten 1974 South Africa tour. He scored 103 points, and also scored a stunning solo try in their second Test in Pretoria.

Phil Bennett (left) with his Wales, Lions and Llanelli team-mate Ray Gravell
Phil Bennett (left), with Ray Gravell, his Wales, Lions, and Llanelli teammate

Bennett's place on the Wales side was not certain. He was replaced by John Bevan in 1975, but a serious injury to the Aberavon flyhalf allowed Bennett to return.

Bennett returned to the team, and Wales won The Five Nations Grand Slam 1976. Bennett took over as captain when Mervyn Davis's career ended in 1976.

Bennett was a cheery, affable personality who gave an insight into his tougher side during a memorable team speech before Wales' Five Nations match with England in 1977.

“They have taken our coal, water, and steel. They take our homes and live there for two weeks every year. What have they done for us? He cried out in passionate rallies, “Absolutely Nothing.”

“We have been controlled, exploited and punished by the English. That's what you're doing this afternoon.”

Bennett was later to lead the Lions' tour of New Zealand in late that year. Although that series was a defeat, Bennett still had time to write a wonderful closing chapter.

Captain Bennett was in danger of losing a Grand Slam when France invaded Cardiff on the last weekend of 1978 Five Nations. He rose to the occasion with two attempts to lead his team to victory, a 16-7 win, and the second consecutive clean sweep in three decades.

While Wales' cheering fans celebrated a third Grand Slam in the 1970s, they didn't know that Bennett was talking to Gareth Edwards, his half-back and undoubtedly the greatest player of all time, in the home changing area after the last whistle.

Bennett recalls years later, “I knew it would be my last game,” but he didn't tell anyone.

“I didn't want it to be about my, this was a fantastic Welsh team, we had just accomplished the Triple Crown and were going after a second Grand Slam within two years.

“So there wasn't a big farewell to anyone or anything like that.

“I walked into Gareth's changing room, and he said, “Bloody hell, you're also getting out.” “Me too.”

Phil Bennett and his wife Pat on their wedding day in 1970
Phil Bennett and Pat Bennett at their 1970 wedding

Phil Bennett was that man. Phil Bennett was humble and understated. He is classy to the end.

After a Llanelli club career that saw him in 413 games with 2,535 points and 131 tries, his final game was 1981.

He retired to work as a pundit at BBC Wales. He was also a regular viewer at Felinfoel RFC in his village and president of his Scarlets.

Bennett was both unassuming and warm in his presence at Felinfoel.

He kept his greatness light and generous with his time, with journalists and fans alike.

Bennett may never have sang his own praises but the sporting community recognized his special qualities.

In 2005, he was elected to the World Rugby Hall of Fame. He will always be remembered for being one of the most outstanding players of rugby.

Leave a Comment