'Benny, I am sorry, boy, to be standing here in front of you'
Phil Bennett was described as “a great gentleman and a great rugby player” as giants of the sport from Wales and beyond united in tribute to him at a remembrance service in Llanelli.
Bennett, who died earlier this month after a long illness at the age of 73, captained Wales and the British and Irish Lions.
A genial fly-half, whose staggering side-stepping ability brought the dance floor to the rugby field, also played more than 400 times for Llanelli RFC.
He won 29 Wales caps between 1969 and 1978, winning two Five Nations Grand Slams and three Triple Crowns, skippered the Lions to New Zealand in 1977 and was part of the Lions’ Test series-winning tour of South Africa three years earlier.
He also started the move, playing for the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973, that delivered a length-of-the-field score and is often described as rugby union’s greatest try.
Barely three miles from where Bennett helped Llanelli famously beat New Zealand 9-3 at Stradey Park 50 years ago, family, friends, players past and present, coaches and rugby supporters gathered at Parc y Scarlets to honour his legacy.
Eulogies were given by Delme Thomas – ex-Wales skipper, three-time Lions tourist and captain when Llanelli toppled the All Blacks – and journalist Graham Thomas, who ghosted more than 1,000 national newspaper columns with Bennett during a 25-year association.
The funeral cortege arrived to the accompaniment of Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ with a star-studded, 40-strong guard of honour reflecting Bennett’s stellar career, while floral tributes included one simply spelt out as “Benny,” one from the Lions and another designed as the figure 10 as Bennett’s coffin was positioned on the halfway line.
Members of the revered 1972 Scarlets team paying their respects included Bennett’s half-back partner against New Zealand Chico Hopkins, try-scorer Roy Bergiers, prop Barry Llewellyn and flanker Tommy David.
They were joined by Bennett’s former Wales team-mates Sir Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies, the Welsh Rugby Union president, ex-Wales and Llanelli captain Ieuan Evans, plus former Lions forward and 1997 Lions tour manager Fran Cotton.
Members of the public – young and old, many wearing Wales and Scarlets shirts – began arriving more than an hour before the service, with highlights of Bennett’s finest moments, including many of his spectacular tries, being shown on the stadium’s big screen.
There was a filmed tribute from New Zealand’s 1972 captain Ian Fitzpatrick, who said: “With his talent, he was something else. He had the skills and ability to produce greatness. We were hugely saddened to hear of his passing.”
Like Fitzpatrick, Delme Thomas spoke from the heart, before pausing at Bennett’s coffin, paying a final moving tribute and receiving a standing ovation as he made his way back to the South Stand.
“It is very hard to stand here and explain how I feel about this little man,” Thomas, 79, said. “What can you say about the greatest player I’ve ever seen play the game?
“That’s a big thing to say because I’ve played with some great players – a lot of them are sat in the stands today – but Phil was something special, a great gentleman and a great rugby player.
“Our outside-half in 1971 was the great Barry John. He was such a great player that they called him ‘King John’.
“When he came back after the Lions tour in 1971 he dropped a bombshell and announced his retirement. Most people thought that was the end of Welsh rugby, but up stepped the boy from Felinfoel (Bennett), and he never looked back.
“Who can forget that day at Stradey Park in 1972. I was lucky enough to play in that game, and from that day forward Phil stamped his authority on Welsh rugby. I had never seen a performance like it. After that day, everyone knew who Phil Bennett was.
“A wonderful friend, ‘Benny’, I am sorry, boy, to be standing here in front of you.
“I refuse to say goodbye. As a Christian, I hope we will meet again. God bless you.”
Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer (Bread of Heaven) and the Welsh folk song Yma O Hyd received rousing renditions, before the cortege left to John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’.
The remembrance service was followed by a funeral service at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Felinfoel, Bennett’s home village where a statue was unveiled in his honour just two months ago.
Bennett is survived by his wife Pat and sons Steven and James.
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