Rugby’s ‘Great Illusionist’ delighted millions of fans
They called him ‘The Pied Piper’ and ‘The Pocket-Sized Illusionist’ – a man who “brought to life all the dreams of rugby football” – and Phil Bennett’s passing this week came as a shock to millions of rugby supporters around the world.
The many clips of Phil playing rugby are treasured by fans from Wales and way beyond. With half-back partner Gareth Edwards, regarded as the finest scrum-half to play the game, the pair led Wales to a Grand Slam title in 1977. He retired from Test duty a year later, winning a second Grand Slam with a win over Les Bleus, converting one of his two tries.
His form for Wales and his crucial part in Llanelli’s 9-3 win over New Zealand two years earlier earned him a place on the Lions’ tour to South Africa in 1974. He scored 103 points during ‘The Invincibles’ trip down South, including a 50-metre solo effort which highlighted his ability to embarrass opponents with ball in hand as the representative outfit won 21 out of 22 games before drawing the fourth Test in Johannesburg.
Bennett played for the Barbarians on 21 occasions, the most famous match being the 1973 victory over the All Blacks where he set-up Edwards for a superb try, one often referred to as “the greatest try of all time”. (Watch video here for some goosies!) Bennett picked up the ball on his own line, side-stepped three Kiwis, before John Williams and company took it further and Edwards dived over in the opposite corner for arguably the greatest try ever scored in rugby union.
After hanging up his boots Bennett became an after-dinner speaker, was a pundit for both television and radio and was named president of Llanelli and the Scarlets. I had several opportunities to sit down in discussion with Phil, a man of great rugby knowledge fuelled by a deep passion that touched everyone he met. My condolences go out to his family and friends.
Phil too, was frustrated by the modern trends of power play which have taken much of the exciting flair and individual brilliance out of the game. The game is a bit more structure today, but there are elements of the sport we all fell in love with as kids that are now not seen as often anymore, not least of all the side-step that Bennett made famous and inspired plenty of youngsters.