PHIL BENNETT, OBE, is fondly remembered as a twinkle-toed fly-half for Llanelli RFC, the Barbarians, Wales and the British Lions, whose sidestepping runs so often left defenders clutching at thin air.
A Welsh international between 1969 to 1978, his flair and range of tricks, including his famous sidestep and swerve, meant he was a firm favourite with crowds.
Bennett was born on October 24, 1948, in Felinfoel, Carmarthenshire, and made his Wales debut on March 22, 1969, against France in Paris at the age of 20 when he became the first Welsh substitute in international rugby, replacing an injured Gerald Davies.
Initially, Bennett played in a number of positions including full back and centre, but settled in the fly-half position in 1972 when he succeeded the legendary Barry John in that position.
Bennett’s form meant that he joined the British and Irish Lions on their famous tour to South Africa in 1974, scoring 103 points. His 50-yard try against South Africa at Pretoria on that tour was a career highlight.
Even so, a place in the Wales side was not guaranteed. In 1975 he was dropped for Aberavon RFC’s John Bevan and only replaced an injured Bevan in the third game at the Murrayfield Test. He played a pivotal role in the final game of that season against Ireland at Cardiff Arms Park, in a record 32-4 victory.
In 1976, Bevan picked up an injury and Bennett was recalled. Following the injury to the then Welsh captain Mervyn Davies, Bennett took over the skipper’s role, which resulted in him becoming captain of the British and Irish Lions on the 1977 tour of New Zealand.
Also in 1977, Bennett’s pre-game pep talk before facing England produced a memorable, anti-English quote:
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, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.
Bennett retired from international rugby union in 1978, having won a total of 29 caps. He signed off in classic style, scoring two tries against France at the Arms Park in a 16-7 victory. The win ensured Wales won their third Grand Slam of the 1970s, and their second in three seasons.
He played his club rugby at Llanelli RFC, where he starred for 16 seasons. He also played 20 times for the Barbarians, including the famous game against the All Blacks in January 1973. In that game he was the catalyst for Gareth Edwards’ try early in the game that connoisseurs of the game still regard as the finest ever scored.
Gathering a bobbling ball that had been kicked high over his head and into his own 22, Bennett beat four players with his trademark sidestep before passing to JPR Williams to launch the move.
Cliff Morgan’s now legendary commentary of the try describes it thus:
Kirkpatrick to Williams. This is great stuff. Phil Bennett covering, chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant! Oh, that’s brilliant! John Williams, Brian Williams, Pullin, John Dawes. Great dummy! David, Tom David, the half-way line. Brilliant by Quinnell. This is Gareth Edwards. A dramatic start. What a score! Oh that fellow Edwards.
This had shortly followed another defining moment in Bennett’s career when, through an exceptional tactical kicking performance, he helped his beloved Llanelli to a 9–3 victory over the same touring All Blacks in October 1972.
His autobiography is entitled Everywhere for Wales, and he went on to commentate on Welsh rugby for television following his retirement.
In November 2005, Bennett was admitted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame and in 2007 to the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame.
Bennett, regarded throughout the rugby world as a true gentleman, died, aged 73, in June 2022.
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