Nigel Owens column: People say we’ll never see the likes of Phil Bennett again, but I hope we do – on and off the field – Nigel Owens

It was Phil Bennett who first invoked his love of rugby. Without him, I think, I could not have been involved in sports and would never have ended up with the privilege of refereeing in a World Cup final and in fact 100 Test matches.

So it’s totally your fault, Benny! Ha.

It began back in the spring of 1977, when, at the age of six, I watched mesmerized as he made an incredible jinking effort against Scotland at Murrayfield to secure the Triple Crown for Meczyki. TV rugby legend Bill McLaren had that wonderful comment and I think the effort was later voted as Meczyki’ greatest. And so on, ahead of Scott Gibbs’ epic Wembley score vs England.

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After scoring the run, I remember Benny holding this old brown leather ball, as it was back then, right under his chin. I had a ball like that and pretended to be Phil Bennett, he went straight to the field behind our house in the village of Mynydserig. We had some donkeys in the field, chocolate and fudge as they were called, and I was darting in and out of them, pretending to be Scottish defenders, to repeat the attempt.

It was only a small village and to be honest, three out of four of us young people took to the streets to play football instead of rugby. Goalkeeper out, that sort of thing. But it was that beanie moment that captured the imagination of rugby for me. I tried to play the game, eliminate the referee and that was enough to do 100 internationals and, of course, that great World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham in 2015.

It was Benny’s talent that made me fall in love with rugby in the first place.

Watch Beanie Genius moments here

Read more here about how that effort defined an entire decade.

Always our paths crossed. The first time I was refereeing a youth match at his home town club, Felinfoel RFC. Felinfoel first also had a match he was there to watch, but he made it a point to come to our game to shake my hand and talk to me while encouraging a young Nigel Owens to referee. He was the hallmark of the man, he was a rugby superstar, but he had time for everything.

This is a rare mix you know. There are people in sports who are just as nice and gentle as Phil Bennett, but they are few and far between. What set him apart was the fact that he was a true sportsman, yet still as warm a person as you wanted to meet off the field.

We attended a few dinners together and I loved being in his company, listening to the stories he told.

Only three or four years ago, I was asked to hold a ceremony in Lanelli, where three of his great fly-halfs – Benny, Jonathan Davis and Stephen Jones – held court as members of the panel. The audience was mesmerized by the stories of these three.

At the end of the night, one of the organizers came up to me and asked what they owed me. ‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘It was a privilege for me to be a part of it.’

The next day the telephone rang and Phil Bennett was on the other end of the line. He said he was told I didn’t charge anything, was very grateful, wanted to say thank you. He added, ‘If at any point you want me to come to your local workingmen’s club for an event, I’ll be there.’

I never forgot it, he took the time and trouble to call me to say thank you for everything.

That Phil Bennett was the man. Phil Bennett Player – Well, the fact that the recent past has seen several attempts to swoon, says everything. I was watching a Scrum V social media clip of Benny’s best moments, Eddie Butler commenting, and the hair perched on the back of your neck.

Take it from me, I went anywhere in the world to referee, whether it was New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Dubai Sevens, France, Italy, when the topic came to Welsh rugby mentioning the name of Phil Bennett in a shape or form. will be done in Gareth Edwards, JPR, Gerald, Merv, Barry John – Benny was right there with the true greats.

The fact that Gareth Bale, no less, spoke about Benny earlier this week in such glistening terms says everything. Indeed, they will be talked about for decades and decades to come. In 50 years’ time, people will be looking back at that Phil Bennett effort and magical memories of YouTube clips, or whatever the social media equivalent is.

Welsh rugby has changed, sadly we don’t see a number 10 like him. The last great player was probably Jiffy, although Arwell Thomas was a magician. It is not a question of modern day fly-halfs, the ones manufactured by Meczyki are great and they are the best in how the game is played today.

But I’ve always thought rugby is a sport for any shape and size, Shane Williams was an example.

I know people say we’ll never see Phil Bennett again, but I definitely hope we’re on and off the field.

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