Phil Bennett: Wales and Lions great remembered at memorial service in Llanelli
Phil Bennett would not have wanted a fuss. He was an icon of Welsh rugby but one who wore his greatness lightly, modest to the last.
There was a hint of wry amusement, therefore, as his family, friends and former team-mates were joined by thousands of fans at Parc y Scarlets to pay tribute to the legendary Wales and British and Irish Lions captain and fly-half.
While Bennett may have wished to remain low-key, there was no downplaying this moment to honour a man whose life had brought such joy to so many.
As drizzle fell from a slate-grey sky, mourners added colour to the occasion as they were invited to wear the shirts, scarves and ties of Bennett’s beloved teams – Felinfoel, Llanelli, Wales and the Lions.
This was a celebration. Of Bennett the player, one of the game’s all-time greats, and of Bennett the man, a warm and generous soul.
Flowers were arranged on the pitch to spell ‘Dad’, ’10’ and ‘Benny’, while videos of his myriad moments of genius were shown on a big screen before the memorial service began.
“I’m not sure how much he would have enjoyed it because of how humble he was, but the people who turned up showed the respect that he had right across the community, not just the rugby community,” said Scarlets, Wales and Lions hooker Ken Owens.
“He was a humble man from Felinfoel. You’d see him talking to people and you wouldn’t know all that he’d achieved in the game and in life.
“I remember being in the lounges after Scarlets games and he would light up the room. People would congregate around him to hear his stories.
“He’s going to be a huge miss to the region, the club, the town, to his family obviously and to everyone who knew him.”
Owens was among those who formed a guard of honour for the arrival of Bennett’s coffin. With the likes of Sir Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and Leigh Halfpenny alongside him, it was a veritable hall of fame.
From players who gave Llanelli their famous victory over New Zealand in 1972 – which Bennett described as his career highlight – to Wales and Lions stars past and present, this was a gathering of Welsh rugby royalty.
Pallbearers included the great Derek Quinnell, while there was also representation from Felinfoel, the village where Bennett was born – and the amateur club he followed avidly throughout his life.
That was one of Bennett’s enduring charms. As much as he cherished Llanelli and the Scarlets, and as proud as he was to have represented Wales and the Lions, Bennett always had Felinfoel in his heart, forever loyal to his roots.
“He was such a great community man,” said Jonathan Davies, the former Wales fly-half.
“He was not only an amazing player but a lovely, lovely man.
“Everyone knew about his rugby genius, but anyone who came across Benny knew he was a lovely man, a local hero and a world great.
“It’s a very poignant day. I’ve known Benny all my life, from walking into Phil Bennett’s Sports Shop just to stare at him, to him giving me the opportunity to play at Neath.
“My thoughts are with Pat [Bennett’s wife], the boys and all the family. It’s a great loss for everyone.”
Sadness is an inescapable reality on days like these, but there was also an unmistakably uplifting quality about this memorial service, a sense of gratitude to have been on this earth at the same time as such a person.
The eulogies reflected that feeling, delivered wonderfully by the Reverend Canon Huw Mosford and Bennett’s former ghost writer, journalist Graham Thomas.
Then as the summer rain drifted away, a silence befell Parc y Scarlets.
Delme Thomas, the towering former Llanelli, Wales and Lions lock, strode on to the halfway line and placed his hand on the coffin.
“It’s very hard to stand here and explain how I feel about this little man,” he 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 – but Phil was something special.
“He was not only a great rugby player but a great friend.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people here. Benny, I’m sorry to be standing here. I refuse to say goodbye.
“As a Christian I hope we’ll meet again, so God bless you, boy.”