Happy returns to the man who was pure poetry in motion - Phil Bennett
WHEN Phil Bennett reached his 50th birthday, Bobby Windsor had no hesitation in declaring, only half in jest: "He is still the best fly-half in Wales."
Today, the Stradey Park legend reaches 65.
No doubt even now the man voted Wales's greatest attacking player of all-time could test some defences. Age shall not wither and all that.
He is one of that rare breed, someone who wears his elevated status lightly. Always has done, always will — modest to his core, happier praising others, an icon of his community who has never forgotten his roots.
Delme Thomas, who has known him since he arrived at Stradey Park in the 1960s, said Bennett was one of the least affected people he had known.
"He doesn't change," said Thomas, himself a towering figure of Llanelli rugby. "We had a players' reunion recently and Phil was exactly as he was 40 years ago. He is from the area and it means the world to him.
"It says a lot for him that he has stayed as he has. He is just a great person, someone it's been a privilege to know and call a friend."
Stories of Benny's grounded nature and generosity are legend.
A tale has been passed down at the Evening Post of a local club once ringing our sports desk desperately seeking help after being let down at the last minute by their after-dinner speaker. The then sports editor got in touch with our long-time columnist, who agreed in an instant to stand in. "But what about money?" Benny was asked. "They can't pay you much."
"Tell them to buy me a few beers," came the reply.
It is easy to forget that Bennett broke into the Wales team while most armchair viewers were watching rugby on black and white TVs. It was March 1969 when he came on as a replacement against France at the old Stade de Colombes.
But it was only after Barry John finished in 1972 that his Test career really got going, with the Lions Test series of 1974 a spectacular episode that confirmed Bennett as an authentic great.
In between John packing in and the trip to South Africa came the Barbarians-New Zealand game, a match regarded as one of the finest ever played. In his new book, Great Welsh Number 10s, Lynn Davies recalls how Carwyn James, brought in to advise the Barbarians, took Bennett aside before the game. The fly-half had been taking time to settle into John's old jersey with Wales — in fairness, there have been easier gigs — and James offered him a few words of encouragement.
"You're not in the shadows any more, Phil bach. Go and show the world what Stradey knows. Don't waste any time. As soon as you like, take them on," urged James.
And so it was that after two minutes Bennett gathered a bouncing ball just metres from his own line. Three slashing sidesteps later a third of the New Zealand side had been beaten. That wasn't just brave counter-attacking play. It was genius.
No Bennett, no greatest try of all time.
"Phil was poetry in motion," said Thomas. "I remember him coming into the club from youth rugby. You could tell then he was a star in the making. I played with some great No. 10s, including Barry John in New Zealand in 1971. Barry was another genius and it is almost impossible to say who was the better player. But what possibly edges it in Phil's favour is that he did it for a bit longer, with Barry finishing at 27.
"Phil could destroy an opposition game plan, not just with his attacking play, but with his ability to read a match. He had a gift for spotting opposition weaknesses and playing on them.
"How would he have fared in the modern game?
"He would have adapted without bother. People forget that while rugby may be more physical today, it was a lot dirtier years ago, and Phil was often a target. Flankers would look to take him out of the game. He had to put up with a lot."
As someone once said, nostalgia paints in honey. But in Bennett's case, the memories are authentically sweet.
Happy birthday, indeed.