The Welsh rugby legend Phil Bennett, who has died aged 73, has been remembered by former teammates and opponents as a “natural talent” who made “anything possible”.
The former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain was an integral member of a golden Welsh generation, representing his country in 29 Tests and helping to secure two Five Nations grand slams, including the 1978 crown when he scored two tries in a 16-7 win over France in Cardiff.
Bennett also starred in the Lions’ historic unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1974 and produced moments of magic in his 20 appearances for the Barbarians, including starting the famous Gareth Edwards try against New Zealand in 1973.
Jonathan Davies, the former Wales captain, says Bennett played a vital role in his own development. “I have known Benny for over 50 years,” Davies told BBC Five Live. “He had a sports shop in Llanelli and I went in just so I could see and meet him. When he retired I used to go down training with him and he just said come down and do some sprint training sessions. We became very good friends, we shared the same birthday. He was a legend of a player and an even better bloke.”
Gerald Davies, the Welsh Rugby Union president, was an international teammate of Bennett during the 1970s and recalled how his sublime skillset made up for his small stature. “He was an exceptional player, a great joy to be with in company, full of good stories,” Davies told BBC Radio Four. “The game itself is made of big burly men, tough and hard, and yet here was a man who was half their size almost able to make them look clumsy and awkward and uncoordinated.
“He had quick clever footwork which was absolutely essential to his game, but unless you have the courage, the daring, those things come to nought. Phil Bennett had the daring, the will to do things his way. His was a natural talent, not manufactured in any way at all and that was a great gift he had.
“He was the kind of player where you wanted to buy a ticket to go and see him play because once he had the ball in his hands, anything was possible. That devastating sidestep of his that was put to great effect in that game that is always being played, the Barbarians against the All Blacks … it was Gareth Edwards who scored at the end, but the man who began it, who was brave enough to try something in his own 22 metre line, was Phil Bennett.”
The World Rugby chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, played under Bennett’s captaincy on the 1977 Lions tour of New Zealand. “He was a remarkable person, a very humble and strong family man,” Beaumont told BBC Radio Wales. “He was also a great rugby player and leader. You don’t become captain of the Lions if you are not a good leader.
“Everybody was sad to hear the news. He was a man who was held in great esteem by teammates and opponents. I used to play against him in the England games and I never was on a winning side against him … the game of rugby and whole world is a sadder place for the passing of Phil Bennett.”
Delme Thomas was Bennett’s Llanelli captain when the club side famously defeated New Zealand in 1972, and the pair also played for Wales and the Lions together. Despite Bennett’s glittering accolades on the international stage, Thomas says it was Llanelli’s victory against the All Blacks 50 years ago that stood out.
“Of all the honours he had, we always go back to that being the best day,” said Thomas. “That’s the day to me that he made a name for himself, from that day onwards he never looked back. I was fortunate to play 10 seasons with Phil at Llanelli. He was a brilliant player, one of the best I have played with and I have never seen an outside-half like him. For me, he was the best 10 to play the game.”
Shane Williams, Wales’ record try scorer, said he modelled his game on Bennett by copying his fleet-footed sidestep. “I’ve got to apologise because I spent hours and days and months just ripping off Phil’s sidestep and using it as my own for my career,” said Williams, who scored 58 Wales tries in 87 internationals between 2000 and 2011.
“That sidestep that I used throughout my career was Phil’s and I used to watch what he did and practise it and use it as my own. He was a huge inspiration.”