Phil Bennett passes away at the age of 73 after a battle with illness

Legendary Wales fly-half Phil Bennett dies at the age of 73 following a battle with illness… no-one else embodied Welsh rugby’s adventurous approach and care-free spirit quite like him

  • Former Wales fly-half Phil Bennett has died aged 73 after a battle with illness 
  • Bennett represented the British & Irish Lions and also played for Llanelli 
  • Nobody embodied Welsh rugby’s adventurous approach quite like Bennett 

In April, a statue of Phil Bennett was unveiled in his home village of Felinfoel in Carmarthenshire. 

It was a physical manifestation of the former Llanelli, Wales and British & Irish Lions fly-half’s legacy, although his place in rugby’s pantheon of greats had long since been secured. 

Bennett – who has passed away at 73 after a battle with illness – will never be forgotten. With his jinking sidestep and running ability, no-one else embodied Welsh rugby’s traditionally adventurous approach and care-free spirit quite like him. 

Former Wales fly-half Phil Bennett has passed away aged 73 following a battle with illness

No-one embodied Welsh rugby’s adventurous approach and carefree spirit like Bennett

Bennett, known for his jinking sidestep and running ability, made 29 appearances for Wales

Only Barry John and, more recently Shane Williams, can claim to have come anywhere close. A working-class hero to many in Wales, Bennett’s outrageous individual brilliance was best summed up when he faced New Zealand with the Barbarians in 1973. 

Sir Gareth Edwards – with whom Bennett formed a legendary half-back partnership – might have scored what is widely acknowledged as the best try in rugby history, but it was his old mucker who started off the move. Bennett sent would-be All Blacks tacklers flying with his dancing feet. 

Not for the first time in his career, no-one could lay a hand on him. Bennett hit his peak between 1974 and 1978. His on-field exploits saw him become a key figure in the famous Welsh side of the 1970’s alongside Edwards, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams and John Dawes among others. 

He won two Grand Slams with Wales in what was then the Five Nations and in 1974, was part of the heroic, unbeaten Lions side that claimed Test victory in South Africa. Bennett played on injured in that series with the Springboks to become a member of ‘The invincibles.’ Willie John McBride – captain on that tour – said Bennett was the difference. 

Bennett (pictured in 2008) captained Llanelli, who are now known as Scarlets

Bennett also captained the Lions in 1977 and was revered for his performances with Llanelli (now Scarlets) and also in the famous shirt of the Barbarians.

Scarlets said in a statement on Sunday night: ‘It is with the deepest sadness we announce the passing of club legend, former captain and Scarlets President Phil Bennett. ‘Phil passed away peacefully at his home on Sunday evening surrounded by his close family. ‘Our thoughts are with Phil’s wife Pat, sons Steven and James and family and friends at this incredibly sad time. ‘Widely regarded as the greatest player to wear the Scarlets jersey, ‘Benny’ played 413 times for Llanelli RFC from his debut against Swansea at the age of 18 to his final appearance at his beloved Stradey Park in 1981.’ 

Bennett retired from international rugby at just 29 in 1978 after leading Wales to a Grand Slam and carried on playing for Llanelli. Without him, Wales went into a steep decline. A man of the people, Bennett became a sports development officer for Carmarthenshire Council after retirement having been a steel worker as a young man. He was inducted into World Rugby’s hall of fame in 2005. Bennett might not have been the biggest, but he took no prisoners and never a backward step. 

Bennett (pictured at Stradey Park in Llanelli in 2003) was inducted into World Rugby’s hall of fame in 2005 

Between 1974 and 1977, Bennett made eight appearances for the British Lions

He thrived in Wales’ famous No 10 jersey after the sudden and shock retirement of John. Before facing England in 1977, Bennett famously told his Wales team-mates: ‘Look what these b******* 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.’ 

Such febrile parochialism might make you think of Bennett as a man whose company you wouldn’t want to share. The opposite is true. Bennett was always approachable and vivacious. He was accessible and never afraid to share his thoughts on rugby. He had a long career writing a newspaper column. 

Bennett in action for Llanelli against London Welsh during a game in October 1975

This reporter remembers interviewing Bennett in Aberystwyth on one summer’s afternoon on the eve of a new season. He had a glint in his eye when he discussed the campaign to come and the prospects of modern-day Welsh stars like the Scarlets-produced Jonathan Davies and George North. Bennett loved the game, its camaraderie, and everything that went with it. He was greeted by current Wales centre Davies at the unveiling of his statue in Felinfoel – the village in which he was born – as he was honoured in front of members of the club he loved most. 

At the time, former Wales centre Tom Shanklin remarked the statue of Bennett should have been engraved in gold and not wood. It was a perceptive comment. Still, the make-up of Bennett’s effigy matters little. He will always be remembered as not only one of the best to have ever pulled on a Wales shirt, but also to play rugby at all. He will forever have a place in the sport’s folklore. 

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