Phil Bennett was born on October 24th, 1948. His 70th birthday is an occasion when anyone still in love with Welsh rugby should raise a glass to a man who embodied its spirit. And anyone too young to remember him should get on YouTube. Graham Thomas pays tribute.
Phil Bennett is 70.
But it’s not all bad news because as Wales and Warren Gatland suffer uncertainty over who to pick at fly-half next month, the great man seems willing to consider a comeback.
He certainly looks fit enough. He occasionally wears a tight corset band to support an aching back, but still manages to go off running around the reservoir near his hilltop home. “Just going for a sweat, love” he tells Pat before slipping out of the door.
Granted, it was others who used to do most of the sweating back in the day. They sweated as they tried to grab his elusive red shirt – it was always red, whether Llanelli, Wales or the Lions – but grasped only thin air. And when they went to bed, they sweated over the havoc and embarrassment he’d caused and would cause again.
When he was in his 40s he stood out as the only player whose light hadn’t dimmed, whose sharpness had not been blunted, when he played for a Welsh golden oldies side against England.
A decade later, he turned out in a charity match against a team of serving firemen, fit young blokes in their twenties and thirties. “Was he any good?” I asked the late Norman Lewis, veteran rugby journalist who covered the Scarlets and happened to have been at the game.
“Not bad,” he replied. “Maybe not quite at the level he was at in 1978, but it was still the best performance by any outside-half in Wales I’ve seen this season.” It was 1998.
It’s often said that Phil Bennett was a typical Welsh No.10, the inheritor of a tradition from Cliff Morgan, who he watched as a young boy, to Barry John, who he eventually took over from for Wales, to Jonathan Davies, whose talent he spotted, encouraged and nurtured with words of wisdom.
But none of them really played like Bennett. None of them had that jack-knifing side-step, that could be activated from a standing start – like a jump jet – and repeated at will. It’s why you can still show anyone, of any age, the start of that try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks, or the one he scored for the Lions against the Springboks in 1974, and they will gasp at the outrageous defiance of normal physical convention.
But it wasn’t simply to pay homage to him as a player that 300 people, including many former internationals, turned up at a dinner in his honour last week. It was to pay tribute to the man, the warmth, the modesty, the generosity of spirit, the humour.
It’s why he is still in huge demand as an after-dinner speaker across the UK, and why to walk through any rugby club with him requires patience as strangers stop him for handshakes and to offer thanks, why fathers of kids wanting selfies with current players, also push them towards the dapper man in the cashmere overcoat.
Stroll through Llanelli town centre with him and it’s as though the badge-wearing sheriff who cleaned up a dirty town is starring in a western, with people shouting from top floor windows, running out of shop fronts, or else eagerly sounding their car horns and waving as he goes by.
When Prince Charles once came to watch the Scarlets play at Stradey Park, they put him in a seat next to Phil Bennett. They must have hoped he’d absorb some charisma from the real Prince Of Wales.
I had the privilege, and the fun, of ghost-writing his autobiography a few years ago. It was his second go at telling his life story, but the encore was well worth it. Only immortals can get away with two versions of the same life.
I also used to write his weekly newspaper column, firstly for the South Wales Evening Post and then also for the Sunday Mirror and occasional magazines pieces. We wrote over a thousand articles on whatever was the hot rugby topic of the day or the big game that was about to be played, or had just finished.
It would require a 15-or-so minute face-to-face chat or phone call and then a lot of scribbling. Here’s a secret of the trade that won’t surprise you. Ghost-writers sometimes have to skip the phone calls. You think those former Premier League footballers whose views you read, reliably answer their phone? Yeah, right.
Of over 1,000 Phil Bennett columns, I entirely made up three – once when his mobile phone died after an international in Paris, another occasion when the phone network crashed in South Africa, and once more on a very rare Saturday when he didn’t watch the Scarlets or Wales, because he was at a family wedding.
The other 997 times he answered after two rings.
These days, he still watches the Scarlets at every home game and when he can, Felinfoel.
“I still enjoy the modern game, well most of it,” he says. “I still like watching great players and people who want to express themselves.
“It can get a bit crash, bang, wallop, so sometimes you have to look hard for the bits of skill but there are still players who can occasionally open up all these tight defences.
“The thing that sometimes confuses me is the breakdown and why the ref is giving a penalty. So, I ask my sons, Steven or James, and they pretend not be guessing, probably like the referee.
“Watching Felinfoel, my village club, is satisfying because we still exist, unlike some who are really struggling. It’s great that we’re top of the league at the moment, but it wouldn’t matter to me if we were only half way up. The important thing for me is that we get a team out every week, mainly filled with local boys.”
They are the same local boys from which Phil Bennett emerged as a player 55 years ago with Felinfoel Youth.
It might take them another 555 years to produce a player like him again, but it’s still worth trying.
Penblwydd Hapus, Phil.
Ieuan Evans – “All I ever wanted to do, was beat people like Phil Bennett and make them look as foolish as he did.”
Willie John McBride – “Phil is a true rugby man, a great friend, and totally unspoiled by time, still the same Phil Bennet I met in 1973.”
Will Carling – “I was so in awe of Phil Bennett at the age of 12 that I couldn’t even ask him for an autograph. I was just happy to be breathing the same air.”
Jonathan Davies – “When Phil had a sports shop in Llanelli, I used to go in every chance I had, not to buy anything, but just to look at him.”
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