Date of Birth: October 24, 1948
Place of Birth: Felinfoel
Position: Fly half
Internationals: 29 caps between 1969 and 1978
Inducted: England v Wales (February 2, 2008)
A legendary figure not just in Wales but in the world of rugby, Phil Bennett was the complete, the all-round fly half – a man who conjured up tries and wins for Wales with astonishing regularity during an international career that spanned 10 seasons between 1969 and 1978.
In that time Bennett experienced the glory of three Grand Slams, tasted the triumph of five Triple Crowns, and of course he had his days at Twickenham, too. Many Englishmen remember him for the three penalties he kicked at HQ to win the Five Nations match and help Wales to the Grand Slam in 1976. “I thought Allan Martin kicked one of those,” confessed Bennett, his 59-year-old memory playing tricks on him.
The match that remains his favourite came much earlier than that. At the beginning of the previous decade to be precise, when a callow, 15-year-old Bennett travelled to Twickenham as a member of a Wales Schoolboy team to take on their English counterparts.
“It was quite a trip for us,” recalled Bennett. “I lived in Felinfoel, the village where I was born, just outside Llanelli and there I was, heading for London. It was a fantastic feeling for a young Welsh boy to know I would be playing at this great stadium.
“Although memories of the match are vague, we did beat England and I contributed to the win by landing a 45-yard drop goal. To this day I do not know where I got the strength to kick the ball that far. In those days they were big, heavy balls which got even more heavy when they got wet.
“I was playing at fly-half and the player marking me was a teenage flanker who was to go on and win caps for England, Tony Neary.
“It was played on a Wednesday and in the evening there was a sports programme on television introduced by Peter Dimmock, and our win and my drop goal was mentioned on that.
“We travelled back to Wales and the following day there was a report on the match in the Daily Express, written by their correspondent Pat Marshall and my father cut the article out of the paper.
“When I went for a walk in the village everyone said they had seen me on TV the previous night and that it was a great drop goal. I felt like a superstar. It was a great experience for a youngster.
“At school two of the teachers said how well the team had done, and Derek Quinnell, who had been a reserve for the match, and I were singled out for congratulations.”
The victory over England at Twickenham in February 1978 laid the foundations for an incredible fourth Slam of that decade (achieved against France in a thrilling game at Cardiff Arms Park a month later). In contrast to his introduction to Twickenham, Bennett recalled that it was a poor match. “It was bitterly cold and raining,” said the former British Lion.
“Alastair Hignell kicked two penalties for England, and the reason I thought Allan Martin had kicked one of our three was because he always used to ask to take the long kicks. But when we were awarded a penalty very late in the game, with the score level at 6-6, I did not hear Allan asking to take the kick. That one was left for me.” Bennett landed the kick.
But Bennett had shared in a far more convincing victory over England at Twickenham two years earlier, when again they completed the Grand Slam.
It was a match he had not originally been picked for after falling foul of the Wales selectors, after aggravating an ankle injury that had originally kept him out of a Wales trial match precisely to avoid re-injuring himself. He was axed from the squad, only to be recalled at a very late stage after the first and second choices at fly half, John Bevan and David Richards, were also injured.
Although Bennett did not get on the scoresheet that day, his pass sent in JPR Williams for the full back’s second try as Wales ran up what was their highest winning margin at Twickenham at that time.
For Bennett, who hung up his boots after the France match in 1978, the memories of the old Twickenham Stadium are headed by the baths. “They were wonderful, big things,” he said. “It was great just to lie in one of those baths filled with boiling hot water, for half an hour after a hard match on a cold day.
“And the atmosphere at Twickenham was wonderful. The crowd never tried to put me off my goal kicks by making a noise. And I never felt intimidated by the crowd even though they were practically within touching distance of the pitch.
“When you went to collect the ball after it had been kicked into touch someone in the crowd would invariably say something.”
But unlike many players who played at Twickenham before the ground underwent its transformation into one of the world’s finest rugby stadia, Bennett feels the redevelopment has not spoiled Twickenham for him.
“I think it has kept a lot of its character. It’s a lovely stadium. These days when I am doing my broadcasting work I love to go into one of the bars for a pre-match shandy and just take in the atmosphere there. It is great, it still has a certain sparkle.”
Article by Dai Llewellyn