Phil Bennett has been described as “a great gentleman and a great rugby player” as sports giants from Wales and beyond came together to honor his memory at a memorial service in Llanelli.
Ennett, who passed away earlier this month after a long illness at the age of 73, was captain of the Wales, British and Irish Lions.
The ingenious striker, whose striking side-stepping ability led the dance floor to the rugby pitch, also played more than 400 times for Llanelli RFC.
He won 29 caps for Wales between 1969 and 1978, winning two Five Nations Grand Slams and three Triple Crowns, captained the Lions in New Zealand in 1977 and had competed on the Test of the Lions winning tour three years earlier. » for South Africa.
He also started this run playing for the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973, which scored from the field and is often described as rugby union’s greatest attempt.
Just three miles from where Bennett helped Llanelli beat New Zealand 9-3 at Strady Park 50 years ago, family, friends, past and present players, coaches and rugby fans gathered at Park and the Scarlets, to honor his legacy.
Panegyrics were delivered by Delme Thomas — a former Welsh skipper, three-time Lyons tourist and captain when Llanelli toppled the All Blacks — and journalist Graham Thomas, who, along with Bennett, wrote more than 1,000 national newspaper columns in a 25-year partnership.
The funeral cortege arrived to the accompaniment of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” with a 40-man star-studded honor guard reflecting Bennett’s stellar career, while the flower tributes included one simply spelled “Benny”, one from the Lions and another crafted as a numeral 10, since Bennett’s coffin was located on the middle line.
Members of the respected 1972 Scarlets team paying their respects included Bennett’s midfield partner against New Zealand Chico Hopkins, tryout scorer Roy Bergiers, prop Barry Llewellyn, and flanker Tommy David.
They were joined by former Bennett Wales teammates Sir Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies, President of the Welsh Rugby Union, former Wales and Llanelli captain Iwan Evans and former Lions striker and 1997 Lions tour manager Fran Cotton.
And the current Scarlets team has included the likes of Wales internationals Jonathan Davis, Ken Owens, Scott Williams and Lee Halfpenny, as well as head coach Dwayne Peel.
Phil was special, a great gentleman and a great rugby player.Delme Thomas
Members of the public—young and old, many in Wales and Scarlets jerseys—began to arrive more than an hour before the service, and the best moments of Bennett’s life, including many of his impressive attempts, were shown on the stadium’s big screen.
A tribute was filmed to 1972 New Zealand captain Ian Fitzpatrick who said, “With his talent, he was something else. He had the skills and ability to produce greatness. We were very saddened to hear of his passing.”
Like Fitzpatrick, Delmay Thomas spoke from the bottom of his heart before stopping at Bennett’s coffin to pay a final touching tribute and receive a standing ovation as he returned to the South Stand.
“It is very difficult to stand here and explain how I feel about this little man,” said 79-year-old Thomas. “What can you say about the greatest player I have ever seen?
“It’s an important thing because I’ve played with some great players – a lot of them are in the stands today – but Phil was special, a great gentleman and a great rugby player.
“Our soulmate in 1971 was the great Barry John. He was such a great player that he was called “King John”.
“When he returned from the Lions tour in 1971, he was a bombshell and announced his retirement. Most people thought this was the end of Welsh rugby, but the boy from Felinfoel (Bennett) stepped forward and never looked back.
“Who can forget that day at Strady Park in 1972. I was lucky enough to play this game and from that day on Phil established his authority in Welsh rugby. I have never seen such a performance. After that day, everyone knew who Phil Bennett was.
“A wonderful friend, Benny, I’m sorry, boy, that I’m standing here in front of you.
“I refuse to say goodbye. As a Christian, I hope we meet again. Be healthy.”
“Guide Me O Great Redeemer” (“Bread of Heaven”) and Welsh folk song “Ima o Hyde” received rousing performances before the cortege set off to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”.
The memorial service was followed by a memorial service at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Felinfall, Bennett’s home village, where a statue was unveiled in his honor just two months ago.
Bennett is survived by his wife Pat and sons Stephen and James.