Rugby’s dazzling wizard Phil Bennett converted plenty to the oval ball | Sport

Welcome to The Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly (and free) rugby union newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version every Tuesday, just pop your email in below,

It can be hard to articulate why people love rugby union. It is not for everyone which, perversely, is one of its most compelling features. At its best, though, it offers more in the way of light and shade than any other team sport out there. And for those who grew up in the 1970s, the game’s most evocative, dazzling wizard will always be Phil Bennett.

He was the pied piper who, single-handedly, converted some of us to the oval ball. His former teammate Gerald Davies summed it up perfectly on the radio following the sad news of Bennett’s death at the age of 73. “He brought to life all the dreams we have of rugby football.” The pocket-sized illusionist, whose ability to spark the imagination enriched not just his own nation but the whole sporting world, specialized in the art of the possible.

Which is why all those clips of Phil Bennett playing rugby are such a precious part of the game’s heritage and soul. You did not have to be Welsh to cherish him because his sidestep transcended such parochial considerations. Then there was his impish nature. If ever there was a classic example of David – or Dai in this case – giving armies of Goliaths the runaround it was the little genius wearing No 10.

Pelé wore the same number, of course, but even the great Brazilian’s highlights are not as iconic as “that try” by the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973. It just so happened to be the first televised game of rugby I’d ever watched . None of us were expecting much as the fly-half, in his black-and-white hooped jersey and distinctive scarlet socks, scampered back towards his own line to collect a capricious bouncing ball. His three subsequent sidesteps – “Brilliant, oh that’s brilliant…” – remain the finest example of turning defense into attack there has ever been.

Modest to a fault, the great man played it down in later years: “If I’d been playing for Wales I’d have probably put that ball into touch somewhere by the halfway line – hopefully.” But instead he remembered how the All Black flanker Alistair Scown had come flying up at him during Llanelli’s famous 9-3 win over New Zealand and decided to dodge him again. By the time he had instinctively wrongfooted another couple of black jerseys, the “try of the century” scored by Gareth Edwards was on.

Phil Bennett: Wales and Lions rugby union legend – video obituary

There were so many special snapshots. Not least that other “worldie” try against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1977 which he finished off himself, chin resting on the ball as he lay beneath the posts for a contemplative moment as if trying to process what had just happened.

The council house kid from Felinfoel, whose father was employed in the local steelworks while his mother worked in a car-pressing plant, always remained the most self-effacing and humble of men. In his early years he was such a fragile infant the local doctor told his father that “this one will never have the physique to play rugby”. But smashing people to a pulp was never remotely his game.

One day, when Neath played Llanelli, he was due to toss the coin before the match with the famously imposing opposition captain Brian Thomas. “What’s this rag doll?” Thomas said to the referee. “Send out a man to toss up.”

It did not prevent him going on to captain the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand in 1977. Yet outweighing all his subsequent achievements was the manner in which he played. Has anyone, for example, ever kicked a tight spiral into touch quite like Bennett? There was something balletic about the way he would momentarily hop on his standing leg after making the sweetest of contacts with his outstretched right foot. Back home in the garden we would all try and copy his tiptoeing, soft-shoe shuffle goal-kicking style as well.

Phil Bennett’s movement on the rugby pitch was balletic. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Of course he played in a great Wales side. Of course he would be required to do a bit more tackling these days. But the passing of “Benny” should also serve as a reminder to all and sundry that rugby, at its most intoxicating, is a game of evasion as much as collision. While every twinkling stand-off needs a good, hard pack of bullish forwards to supply all-important quick ball, every great side needs a skilled matador to apply the killer touches.

Not that Bennett, when the occasion demanded it, was entirely averse to some straight talking. If his infamous speech as Wales captain to his team before they faced England in 1977 sounds a bit unlike him, it reflected the loyal, passionate Welshman within: “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.”

Little wonder Wales won 14-9 on their way to the triple crown for a second successive year. And now he is side-stepping into rugby heaven, having already shown us a glimpse of what those Elysian fields look like.

It is possible to be overly romantic about sport, to gloss over unglamorous realities and to concentrate excessively on flashy, individualism. Bennett’s great gift to the world was to show that beauty, skill and pragmatism could come wrapped up in the same unassuming package. That it was possible to buck any trend, that size really doesn’t matter. We are all in his debt and some of us will for ever remain so.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.