Magical feet and an adventurer's spirit were just two of the qualities that made Welshman Phil Bennett a fly-half legend long before his playing career had ended
Major teams: Llanelli
Test span: 1969-78
Wales caps: 29 (26 starts)
Lions caps: 8 (8 starts)
Test points: 210 (5T, 20C, 46P, 4DG)
How many pints of Brains beer have been sunk while Welsh rugby fans have debated whether Phil Bennett or Barry John is the greatest fly-half the world has ever seen? Thousands, no doubt, as it has been one of rugby’s favourite debating points.
Those in the Bennett camp cite the Llanelli man’s part in the unbeaten Lions tour of 1974 and his magical series of sidesteps that started the length-of-the-pitch move for Gareth Edwards’s breathtaking Barbarians try against New Zealand.
Certainly, Bennett’s footwork was unparalleled. His long-time half-back partner Edwards said he was “a fantastic stepper but sometimes I think even Phil didn’t know where his sidesteps would take him”.
Talking to The Daily Telegraph in 2009, Edwards also dubbed the former steelworker “an instinctive genius” and anyone who saw Bennett’s performance in the second Lions Test against South Africa in 1974 couldn’t disagree, as the No 10 had the game of his life, creating tries for his team-mates in a 28-9 drubbing and scoring a brilliant one himself with a trademark sidestepping run from deep.
A leg injury almost ended his tour at that juncture, but skipper Willie John McBride was so against Bennett going home that he literally carried him around for the next few days to help him heal. Bennett, unable to run properly in the third Test as his legs were numb with painkillers, dropped two goals as the series was clinched in Port Elizabeth.
Bennett made his Wales debut aged 20 as the nation’s first Test replacement, but didn’t secure the No 10 jersey until John retired in 1972. He had his down times: he briefly lost his place to John Bevan and later floundered under the pressure of the Lions captaincy on the unsuccessful and rain-plagued 1977 tour to New Zealand.
His place in the pantheon of greats is undisputed, however. “Fundamentally, he was a shy Felinfoel boy,” says JJ Williams in the book Behind the Dragon. “He had massive natural ability. Sometimes he was bewildering to watch. The London Welsh boys, JPR and John Taylor, would accuse him of not doing for Wales what he’d do for Llanelli. But come on, he was one of the greatest rugby players of all time.”
Bennett captained Wales eight times from 1977 and his Test career finished with a flourish in 1978 as he scored two tries in a 16-7 win over France to clinch his second Grand Slam. He was awarded an OBE the following year.