Phil Bennett was one of my rugby heroes – he’ll live forever in my memory – Martin Hannan

ONE of the many troubles with getting older is that the rugby heroes you idolized when you were young and callow inevitably pass away, stirring memories of yesteryear when players really were more skilful and brute force did not win every game.

Nostalgia is a blessing and a curse, a bittersweet affection for past things, and I felt full of it late on Sunday when news came through of the death of Phil Bennett, the very great Welsh fly half who was at the heart of the phenomenal Wales team of the 1970s.

I was a huge fan of his as a teenager, and was privileged to interview him for the book Once Were Lions which I wrote with my old mucker Jeff Connor in 2008-09. I have kept the sadly degraded recording of the interview and listened to his lilting voice again, reminding me of how humble he had been, how he was intent on praising those who had been great players around him, giving them the credit that was undoubtedly his .

A genuine and sincere man, Bennett was everything that people say about him as a player. Possessed of blistering acceleration and the ability to swerve while running at full tilt, I suspect most people will remember that he could sell a dummy to the devil and sidestep entire nations, while his nose for a try was unmatched – check out on YouTube his score in the British and Irish Lions’ Second Test in 1974 when he scored a try that the entire crowd in Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium loudly acclaimed.

As well as kicking so many penalties and conversions, he scored what has been voted Wales’ best-ever try, and of course it was against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1977. Mind you it would probably have been disallowed now in these days of VAR as Bennett’s pass to David Burcher during the scoring move was definitely forward. Never mind, for as Bill McLaren said in commentary, the try was “absolute magic” as was Bennett’s extraordinary role in the greatest-ever try scored by the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

He was honest to a fault, telling me that he recalled the 1977 Lions’ tour as one of the worst experiences of his rugby career, and quietly confessed that he had not been up to the job of captaincy. He still ended the tour as the Lions’ top test points scorer.

Was he the best fly half ever? I don’t think that can be decided easily because people became ‘GOATS’ at different eras. Bennett was an amateur, and I can only think that if he had played as a full-time professional then he would have been even better. He captained his country and the British and Irish Lions, but won only 29 international caps – it would have been double or triple that number nowadays.

There have been many attempts to name the top ten No 10s of all time, and the English always choose Jonny Wilkinson while the Irish currently claim Jonny Sexton as the best. Maybe Finn Russell will eventually be able to be chosen in the top ten, and I think the most sensible judges would plump for Dan Carter or Grant Fox of the All Blacks, though I would make a case for Naas Botha of the Springboks, Argentina’s Hugo Porta and Australia’s Michael Lynagh, Stephen Larkham, Mark Ella or Tom Lawton from way back when. For the future I will be watching Romain Ntamack who I expect to lead France to glory in the World Cup next year.

The Welsh have three outstanding candidates in Bennett, Jonathan Davies and the King himself, Barry John. It was John who kept Bennett out of the team at first, and it was only when John retired at the age of 27 that Phil Bennett came into his own, though John Bevan replaced him for several Five Nations matches in the mid-1970s.

He bowed out after making a crucial contribution to Wales’ third grand slam of the 1970s, scoring two tries in the Grand Slam-clinching match against France. Incidentally, he finished that match as the then top scorer in Five Nations history.

Bennett has long since passed into legend, though there was one story about him which actually was fact. In his captain’s pre-match talk before playing England he told his colleagues: “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.”

There was no recording made of that speech, which was put together by reporters from the accounts of the Welsh players after the game was won. But if I close my eyes, I can just hear about Bennett’s distinctive tones exhorting his fellows.

Heroes do live forever, but only in our memories.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.