Interview: Former Welsh No 10 Phil Bennett on a stellar career and the pain of losing his first son

Phil Bennett, scorer of one of the absolute solid gold classic Welsh tries against Scotland, apologises in advance. He's telling me what a rugby legend likes to do in his 70th year and doesn't reckon it amounts to very much.

The legendary Phil Bennett with the Six Nations trophy.
The legendary Phil Bennett with the Six Nations trophy.

“This’ll sound pathetic, Aidan, but me and the wife Pat will take a little drive to the Gower Peninsula and Three Cliffs Bay which Katherine Jenkins says has the best views of anywhere or we’ll pop across to Laugharne where Dylan 
Thomas did a lot of his great writing and the little pubs compete over where he did the most drinking.”

Notice how he name-checks the famous Welshies, almost as if he thinks the beauty spots require star patronage. The sultan of the sidestep in that sensational Red Dragons XV of the 1970s would never dream of volunteering the information that his own village of Felinfoel has a street named after him – Stryd Phil Bennett.

Indeed, this only slips out at the end of our chat, when he’s telling me how Stradey Park, where he finessed the feints which would soon have a nation sobbing tears of gratitude into its beer, has been concreted over for a new housing estate. “My name on a road sign? I’ll tell you, Aidan, when Pat and I walked past and saw it we were as-ton-ished,” he says in his sing-songy lilt.

Bennett will address me by name many times. Beautiful actresses used to do this when I covered the showbiz beat and, honestly, I didn’t like it and thought they were trying too hard to curry favour. Bennett avoids criticism by virtue of his brilliance with a rugby ball and his hugely endearing sense of place, of home, of the land of his fathers.

Bennett’s father Les never set foot outside Wales his whole life. Rugby took his boy to the far corners of the world and still requests his presence even now. The other day there was a lunch in London for the Magnificent Seven – the septet from the sport’s greatest score, for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

“It was a nice day out. The organisers told us they could have sold the tickets ten times over. But I was glad to get home, as I always am.

“There was a Wales tour of Argentina [1968] where we got in late to Heathrow and, typical of the WRU at the time, they didn’t put us up in a hotel at the airport but bussed up straight back to Wales. It was a couple getting off here and a couple there until I was the only one left. The bus didn’t get to Felinfoel until gone 2am but Dad, bless him, was sat on the wall at the front of the house waiting for me. I suppose he thought I might have needed a cup of tea and I remember thinking: ‘Dad, I’ve crossed the Atlantic. I’ve seen the beaut-i-ful city of Buenos Aires. You’ve been nowhere, old fella.’”

But it is the aftermath of another tour and the tragedy which befell Bennett on his return which tells you most about the man and his feelings for this tiny bump on the Llanelli-Carmarthen road.

In 1974 he was one of the Invincibles, the Lions who went undefeated in South Africa. Bennett was the top Test points scorer and if you were searching for beauty to place alongside the brutality of the campaign’s infamous “99” call then you looked no further than his sensational swerving run – three times in quick succession he planted his left foot and darted to the right to stupefy the Springboks – which set up a try for Andy Irvine.

Pat was pregnant with their first child while her husband was making history. Baby Stuart was born a few weeks after he got back to Felinfoel only to die the next day. Bennett was a broken man. “When something like that happens it hits you like nothing else and I couldn’t cope,” he says quietly. “But if I was hurting, what about Pat? I’d been four months in South Africa while she was carrying the baby. I should have been by her side, not playing rugby. I wanted to give up the game there and then.

“It was the saddest moment when I held Stuart for what was the last time. The nurses had taken him to this little room to give him some heat. I looked at his face and his black, black hair and he was beautiful. But out of such heartache can come something wonderful. The community was magnificent. My rugby club, Llanelli, were magnificent. I’ll never forget the support and the love everyone showed us. It gave us strength when we were down. I was a steelworker and when I went back to work the boss ordered me back home. ‘But I’ve got to put bread on the table,’ I said. He said: ‘Take a week off, comfort Pat.’ At my club the great Carwyn James asked me: ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Still raw,’ I said. He said: ‘Right, you’re both having a holiday in Spain, courtesy of Scarlets. Things will get brighter.’

“The gynaecologist told us it had been a one in a million chance that Stuart had suffered the problem with his heart. ‘You’re both young,’ he said. ‘Go and have another child right away.’ We went to Spain and Pat became pregnant. This baby was coming early one morning. I nipped out of the hospital for some fresh air and fell upon this chapel. I’m not a religious man but I knelt down and prayed. ‘Please God,’ I said, ‘I’ll give up everything in my life if you would just make this little one fine, fit and healthy.’”

Steven was later joined by another son, James. Bennett is now a doting grandfather but Stuart still has a place in his life. “You may think this morbid or even stupid but twice a week I visit his grave in the lovely churchyard five minutes from my house. I make sure the stone is always clean and Pat lays fresh flowers. Now, there’s been a small invasion of moles who’ve burrowed under some stones which have toppled over. I’d strongly advise these little buggers to keep out of my way.”

After trying in vain to recruit future snooker world champ Terry Griffiths to rugby – “What if I injure my hands?” his school chum would wail – Bennett

donned the famous red for the first time in 1969 as Wales’ first-ever replacement against France in Paris. “It wasn’t that notable a debut,” he laughs. “The great Gerald Davies got injured three minutes from the end but the zip stuck on my tracksuit. Norman Gale, a fine hooker, had to tear the trousers to pieces to get them off me. By then there was only one minute to go. Just time for the great Barry John to think about passing to me only he must have reckoned I looked a bit pale and so kicked instead.”

Bennett could have been a footballer. In his teens he impressed Swansea Town enough to be offered a contract, although he was unaware the club, now City, rated him so highly. “I only discovered this when my mum was clearing out a drawer after Dad died. He’d hidden the letter from me! Dad was a big rugby man, like everyone in our village. Both my parents had been so proud when I got into the Wales team. They had no life. All they did was work and keep the family.”

In this corner of west Wales, either you were employed in coal or steel, although little Felinfoel boasted a brewery. Bennett, in following his father into the steelworks, enjoyed privileges. “Because I was young I was kept well away from the molten pits. That was hot, dangerous work and with me already playing for Scarlets the other lads used to say: ‘You have a bit of a rest, Phil bach, there’s a big game on Saturday.’ But Dad saw a man being cooked alive and it never left him. The poor fellow was knocked over by a big magnet and this Llanelli forward, Ossie Williams, had to be restrained from diving into the boiling metal to save him. I saw a lot of miners die too young so I was lucky.”

The first of Bennett’s eight encounters with Scotland – six victories, two losses – was at Cardiff Arms Park in 1970 with our man at centre while Barry John continued to orchestrate at No 10. Assuming the mantle must have been tough, I say. “Well, not wanting to sound arrogant but Llanelli would quite often beat Barry’s Cardiff when they had Gerald and Gareth [Edwards] as well.” And by ’73, when Bennett made his Murrayfield bow, Scarlets had toppled the All Blacks as well.

The 9-3 win the previous October, which has been enshrined in folklore, rates as Bennett’s greatest day. He’s a proud Welshman but an even prouder Scarlet. “Think local, act local” might be his motto. “At the end of the game the supporters burst into the dressing-room and ripped the laces from our boots as souvenirs. Some already had clumps of mud from the pitch. By about 7pm, on my way to see Dad who’d been too ill to be at Stradey, there were policemen cavorting with a ball – I think they were drunk! By half past eight, as Max Boyce says in his song about the game, all the pubs had run out of beer!”

Bennett arrived in Edinburgh as a double vanquisher of New Zealand, the Barbarians triumph featuring THAT try coming the previous Saturday. This time, the sorcerer stamped his right foot three times to make the magic happen, his sidesteps beginning the move deep in his own half. “What was I thinking? Here comes Alistair Scown again. He chased me down like a lunatic in the Llanelli game. This time, though, he’d brought along a couple of mates. [Actually, Bennett’s zigzagging took out five men.]

“So maybe because there were a lot of us Wales lads in the Baa-Baas we thought against Scotland that we’d just throw the ball around and the tries would come. But you boys tackled yourselves almost to death and deserved the victory.”

The Barbarians wonder-score was completed by Gareth Edwards who, the year before, Bennett had watched touch down against the Scots with almost as brilliant a solo try. “That was the one when he stood up with his face covered in red clay from the Arms Park dog-track and his mother almost fainted, thinking he’d split his head open.” Mention of Edwards brings us to Bennett’s most famous speech as Wales captain: “We were playing England [1977]. In that situation, a game every Welshman is desperate to win, what do you say to JPR [Williams], JJ [Williams], Steve Fenwick, Terry Cobner and the Pontypool front row that’s any different? Off the cuff I began this rant: ‘Look at what these buggers have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our houses and only live in them for two weeks of every year. We’ve been controlled, exploited, raped and punished by the English and that’s who you’re playing today, boys.’ I was pretty chuffed, although wasn’t sure Gareth had been taking it in. ‘And Gar,’ I said, ‘they’ve taken our rivers, too.’ He’s a great fisherman and he said: ‘What? The bastards!’”

Could he get away with that now? Probably not. Indeed when Joe Marler was fined and banned for calling Wales’ Samson Lee “Gypsy boy” another Englishman, Jeff Probyn, suggested there ought to be retrospective punishment for Bennett. “He wanted me to be stripped of my OBE and kicked out of the World Hall of Fame. I didn’t mean for my remarks to be taken personally by the England team we played. I had a fine drink with all of them after the match. Two of my best pals from the Lions tours are Peter Wheeler and Fran Cotton. I phoned Fran after this blew up and he said: ‘Don’t worry, Phil, everyone hates England. What do you think the Scots have said about us down the years?’!”

Back to Scotland v Grand Slamming Wales. He reels off some of his thistle-breasted opponents: “Ian McGeechan, beautiful passer of a ball… Sandy Carmichael, helluva player… Bruce Hay, couldn’t understand a bloody word he said… Gordon Brown, dear friend. Your SRU were quite correct, weren’t they? I said to Broon after one game: ‘Do you think they’ll buy us a pint tonight then?’ ‘Nae chance!’ he said.

“These were great sporting encounters and great social ones. Scots farmers mixed so well with Welsh miners. There was the time [’78] when it snowed so heavy in Cardiff the Scots fans were stranded for days. I don’t think they minded too much. And in Edinburgh I remember walking on to the balcony of the North British Hotel and, oh my godfathers, Princes Street was a great sea of red.”

Did “Welsh Week” – the biannual leek-waving invasion of Edinburgh begun with these wild-haired sidestep aficionados from the valleys kissing goodbye to their womenfolk the Monday before a game – put pressure on Bennett and his boyos? “It was good pressure. If these fans were going to travel all that way in clapped-out buses to see us play when times were hard in Wales and money was tight, we felt duty bound to put on a show. That didn’t always happen, mind you, because Scotland were feisty opponents.

“There was that game in front of that world-record crowd [104,000 in ’75]. Didn’t you have a terrible disaster at a Rangers-Celtic match when fans tumbled down a high bank? Well, from the bottom of a ruck I glanced up at this great mass of humanity and said to myself: ‘Easy does it, lads.’

“We lost that one. Maybe it was my worst match for my country. If there were 25,000 Welshman in Edinburgh then at night I did my best to avoid every single one of them. When Wales got beat in the 1970s, the mood could be suicidal. And very bad for business, too. By then I’d become a beer rep. There were massive orders from the pubs if we’d won but Mondays after a defeat could be very awkward.”

Bennett’s famous scamper for the line came at Murrayfield in 1977. “Oh, it was just a rabbit-run,” he says. “The last man to try and stop me was Ian McLauchlan. ‘What the hell are you doing way up here, Mighty?’ I said. “But Andy Irvine scored a mag-nif-icent try, too. That was another great game.”

He has high hopes for today’s contest and is looking forward to reuniting with friendly foes but then it will be straight back down the road. “Felinfoel has been through some hard times but they can’t take away our pride. The brewery’s still going, you know, so if you’re ever passing this way, Aidan, please drop in and see us.”