In a ver-ry weird world one of the candidates for Mad Truisms of the Week is the fact that Phil Bennnett won 29 Welsh caps. This, at a time when folks are being bundled onto planes to Rwanda as a kind of inflammatory gesture against the assumed decencies of the universe, strikes me as mildly shocking… and yet not, I suppose, a surprise. The world is poignant and mad.
For the god of Felinfoel and Llanelli and Wales and the Lions to have done his magical, Orphean thing so few times seems ridiculous. (Eight Lions caps, including the New Zealand tour, which he captained. Twenty Baabaas appearances). How is that possible? How, given those ridicu-numbers can his legacy be so blazingly resonant and his place in the firmament so fabulously ennobling for the Welsh? The bloke played almost 60 fewer games in the jersey than Shane Williams, and 121 less than Alun Wyn Jones!
The world is poignant and mad… and now they they play waaaay more games. But on the plus side, there are times when it’s slam-dunkingly and wonderfully obvious that YOU CAN’T BLOODY QUANTIFY EVERYTHING. The numbers don’t always matter. Sometimes there is a kind of grace that really does transcend. This stuff is in play, with Bennett.
The man was and is loved for his decency. (Go see: the Twitterverse and beyond full of his loveliness and humility – how he was, with people). But it’s the talent, the god-given genius that’s imprinted upon us. Moments where that step took us all somewhere thrilling, new, unknowable. Tries for Wales and the Lions and if not tries then flurries of instinctive, unrehearsable brilliance that marked Phil Bennett out as a star. In a team (arguably an era) festooned with rugby icons, he was The Playmaker, The Heart-stopper, The Artist. People almost stopped talking about Barry John.
Us coaches now are quite strongly advised to avoid or at least take extreme care around this word talent. I get that: too often a way to underestimate the centrality of discipline(s) and practice. And it may be that there is merit in demystifying, taking a cool look at processes, strategy, performance, in sport and beyond. But let’s not deny the joy and the inspiration, people. Phil Bennett jinking is a metaphor for every moment of liberation and yes, generosity that humans have ever had. It’s the instant that says ‘I believe. I can make this happen. I will defy. Now’.
If the step into literal and metaphorical space works, it’s then what coaches now tend to call ‘good execution’ – a cooler or more contemporary way of saying (more or less), that the talent was expressed – successfully.
Rugby and the world was different, back then: it was simpler and this may have made it more possible for Bennett to flick into Unconscious Genius Mode. (And yes, I would probably argue that mostly, those steps are triggered so late, or so instinctively by the micro-movements or changes of pace and space around him, that this ultimate expression of ‘playing what’s in front of you’ is beyond, or maybe wonderfully pre- strategic. Whether I’m right or wrong, or lazy with my terminology, the dummies are truly sensational: they symbolise optimism and for many they symbolise a nation).
It seems wise to note that for all this flamboyancy, Phil Bennett was captain of both Lions and Wales. That in itself may capture the heft of his accomplishment. He could not be, then, just a flickerer and a dilettante. He had to lead, to contribute, to inspire. He did.
Many will be familiar with the rallying he gave his comrades, for the England game of 1977. We can’t know if the following is word-for-word – I suspect some ‘language’ has been edited-out – but it’s a classic of the genre:
Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They have taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our houses and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given to us? Absolutely nothing. We were exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s what you’re playing this afternoon.
The lad from Felinfoel, close to Llanelli, the club that swallowed-up but also launched him, could rage when he needed to. The characteristic ‘feeling’ was there, alright. England and the English were/are the enemy. The fire burns bright against that.
*A wee indulgence on this, if I may. I am an English-born bloke who has spent virtually all his adult life in Wales. This is my home; my kids grew up to speak Welsh as well as Grimbarian. I struggle – i.e. I’m broiling and embarrassed – around most of those abstracted notions around poshness/English money/Torydom/privilege. Specifically, being a half-decent footballer I was rather self-consciously proud to be captain of a village club where everybody except me was born within three miles of the pitch. I had, however, like most of The Lads, not a cat in hell’s chance of buying a home in that ‘location’. Friends, given the obscene levels of second-home-ownership here – that and yaknow, history – you English get off pretty lightly*.
Phil Bennett was by all accounts a fabulous man. My father – Macclesfield, Sale RFC, England through-and-through, ’purist’ – adored him and may have passed on some appreciation of the fly-half’s transcendent gifts. I’m grateful for that, and for the part Bennett played in our Welsh/Brit/worldwide/communal understanding of what it is to be free to ‘have a go’.
I/we watched, transfixed, as he paused then let rip: many of us I think came to love both the Lions and the Barbarians because of Phil Bennett. Because of the link he made between sport, risk and (dare I say it?) altruism.
He played sixteen seasons, apparently, for Llanelli: respect. But for the dancing, the sheer, irrepressible shimmy-and-burst… more. We can only hold up our hands in gratitude.
Thankyou, Phil. We – and I do mean all of us – absolutely loved it.