23 February 2003

A legend laments that his country are still chasing a Grand Slam 25 years after he masterminded their last

Stradey Park was cold, clear and bitter sweet. Smiling into the biting wind was a small figure still looking as impishly fit and determined as he had done on that magical day 30 seasons ago when Llanelli beat the All Blacks, the same figure whose three impossible sidesteps began the move which led to the try by Gareth Edwards at Cardiff two months later. Phil Bennett in his heartland; oh how his country yearns for him now.

Recall only makes things worse. Next month it will be exactly a quarter of a century since Phil Bennett ran off the pitch at the Arms Park and announced that it was his last time in a Welsh jersey. He had just captained a team which had included Gareth, J P R Williams, J J Williams, Ray Gravell, Bobby Windsor, Derek Quinnell and Terry Cobner to beat the French and win the Grand Slam. “If anyone had told me then,” he said on Tuesday, “that 25 years on we were still waiting for another Grand Slam, I would have taken them round to the lunatic asylum.”

The original reason for last week’s journey was to discuss the engrossing new opus `Phil Bennett – the autobiography’ that Phil has done with the talented Gareth Thomas but, after Saturday, there was also a more pressing case. If Wales can get beaten by Italy, can Bennett really blame us for succumbing to the mindset he attacks in his final chapter? “My biggest fear for Welsh rugby,” he writes, “is that the future will continue to be dwarfed by the past.”

He looks up the way he used to when the big forwards were closing in, he looks around at the peeling corners of Stradey Park, just a couple of miles from the village of Felinfoel, where he has lived all of his 54 years and where he is still the linchpin of the cricket and rugby clubs and much else besides. “Yes it’s very difficult,” says Phil, his eye sweeping across what is now a post-industrial horizon. “There used to be a huge steel works over there, I was a steel worker. There was the big saucepan factory over there and then there were the coal mines all up the valleys. All gone now, you can build marinas and try and attract tourists but this is a different society.”

As he points out, the valleys where Gareth Edwards and Barry John were born, another where Jonathan Davies still lives, the forbidden nostalgia seems to be sweeping in. Phil Bennett the legend, now grateful for his role in the media and his work with youth sport in the local area, a modest man with very little to be modest about. But then there is a jink in the conversation and we sprint back to the Italian shame of last weekend. “It was not just getting beaten,” he says, “it was the lack of fight. If you looked at the Italian forwards they wanted it more, ours seemed to be just going through the motions. You have to have passion, to really care.”

So after the apparent improvement of last autumn Wales’ downward journey continues. Just four years ago John Taylor made a splendid video with his old Seventies team-mates to look back at the golden years but celebrate Graham Henry’s 10-match winning sequence. How hopelessly optimistic rings John’s then perfectly legitimate conclusion – “so the start of the new Millennium could yet be the beginning of a new golden era”.

Bennett fears that it can get even worse. “My doomsday scenario,” he says, “is that Wales continue to be thrashed by England on a regular basis until even the most sadistic England fan becomes bored by the whole business. Once they get fed-up and can’t be bothered to sell out Twickenham, once the advertisers and sponsors think the public are losing interest in a wholly predictable fixture, then England will simply cut and run; and perhaps take France with them.”

Surprisingly, in view of his own shameful treatment by the authorities, there is more energy than bitterness as he presses on. He may never have been back to an official Welsh dinner since he was branded a rugby union leper for the hardly heinous crime of taking money for writing a book on his retirement from Llanelli in 1981, but that is in the past. The total folly of not involving the great stars of the Seventies with the development of their successors is a done deed. What angers Bennett is the much more recent undermining of the Tasker Watkins Report on which the great Gerald Davies sat for two long years, what energises him is the thought that all could yet be saved.

You can still warm your hands on the enthusiasm as he talks about Gavin Henson, voted the International Young Player of the Year, about the young talent he sees on his visits to primary schools, and of his particular pride in the Test place won by pace bowler Simon Jones, who graduated through the youth system from Bennett’s neighbouring village. But then you remember that the little imp was also 11st of hardness as he turns directly towards the try-line of his argument.

“It is obvious,” he writes in his book, “that there is a cash crisis in the game in Wales. Local clubs that should be offering merely social rugby and a fun route into the game for kids are paying weekly wages to players who don’t deserve a bean.” It is a harsh conclusion based on the direct experience of Felifoel having to sell their own clubhouse to survive and the Bennett ire is then aimed equally at the big operations and their lack of grassroots support. “The situation,” he says, “needs real leadership from the Welsh Rugby Union and they have showed none.”

For someone as steeped in local life, married some 30 years to a local girl and with two sons still living within the area, Bennett is surprisingly far ranging in his conclusion. He cites the success and vigour that the European Cup has brought to Wales, he advocates just five big Welsh clubs to be part of a Celtic Super 12, and pleads for everyone to put local differences aside. “We are so incestuous,” he says, “but this is the last chance we’ll get.”

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