Peter Jackson's Six Nations stories: The day Wales dropped Phil Bennett

By Peter JacksonFreelance journalist and broadcaster
Peter Jackson Six Nations stories Scotland 1975

The Angel in Cardiff used to be the spiritual home of Welsh rugby at the highest level.

The hotel where for decades the Welsh team ate, slept and drank, just across the road from what was then Cardiff Arms Park and today is the Principality Stadium.

And it was there on a winter's weekend 42 years ago five men met behind closed doors and took a decision which unleashed one of the most heated debates in Welsh and British rugby.

Picture the scene. It's the first Saturday night of 1975, the Welsh selectors - known as the Big Five, had just seen the Probables hammer the Possibles in a final trial at the Arms Park.

They retired to a room on the first floor of the hotel with a message that the team for the opening match of the Five Nations will be announced at 7.45 pm.

Along with four other reporters I waited below in the foyer - upstairs and downstairs, we knew our place.

It was gone nine o'clock before the selectors invited us into their inner sanctum where they named the team to play France in Paris.

It contained no fewer than six new caps, among them Aberavon's outside-half John Bevan.

They also named another uncapped fly-half among the replacements, a 20-year-old from Swansea called David Richards.

No Phil Bennett? Was he injured? No.

Was he ill? No.

So he'd been dropped.

Phil Bennett scores a try for Wales in the 1978 Grand Slam showdown with France in Cardiff
Phil Bennett scored two tries as Wales beat France 16-7 to claim the Grand Slam in 1978

The Big Five could be notoriously uncommunicative when it suited them and it suited them that Saturday night. And Bennett had not played in the trial.

Only a few months earlier the same Phil Bennett had come home from the greatest of all British and Irish Lions' tours, celebrated as the ringmaster of their unbeaten safari throughout South Africa.

So he had just gone from being the number one number 10 in Europe to the number three number 10 in Wales, at best. It beggared belief.

There was only one person to speak to - Phil Bennett. I rang him, apologised for bothering him so late and asked for his reaction to the news. And he said: "What news?"

I'd assumed that the Big Five had at least afforded him the basic courtesy of a 'phone call.

What a way to treat amateur players giving up their time and not getting a bean for it. But the selectors took a dim view of those who they suspected of pulling out of trial matches and clearly something had happened that made them teach young Bennett a lesson.

Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett
The half-back partnership between Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett was key to the Lions' 1974 triumph in South Africa

Wales went to Paris, won a famous victory and Bevan had a blinder. They duly beat England next up in Cardiff, as they invariably did in those days and then, as now the third round took them to Edinburgh.

Bennett was back in the squad, replacing an injured Richards on the bench, resigned to sitting the match out before fate took a hand.

Bevan's dislocated shoulder brought Bennett back even if it was for a game he had good reason to forget.

Scotland's captain, Iain Mclauchlan, the mighty mouse, vowed to give Wales hell. He kept his word and the Scots won 12-10 despite Wales scoring the game's only try, from their openside flanker Trevor Evans.

But that has gone down in the history book for another reason, thanks to the support from Wales.

An estimated 40,000 had made the biennial pilgrimage north, most of them by road with many stops along the way.

I had never seen anything like it before, nor since. From my hotel room at one end of Princes Street, all I saw was a swarming sea of red stretching all the way down towards the Scott monument as far as the eye could see.

Wales team that played France in the 1977 Five Nations Championship
Phil Bennett was appointed captain of Wales for the 1977 Five Nations championship

The crowd was so vast that the Lothian Police estimated it at 104,000, then the biggest for any rugby international anywhere. A few thousand more had turned away, unable to climb the grass bank on one side of the stadium because of the sheer weight of numbers.

Those who made it were rewarded with two sights they never saw again. One, Wales would never lose another match under captain Mervyn Davies and, two, Phil Bennett would never be a replacement again.

A permanent fixture throughout the next three seasons, he saw to it that Wales won two Grand Slams and three Triple Crowns, the second crown secured at Murrayfield with a try that still gets me going after all these years.

If ever one score represented everything that a team stood for, this was it - a dazzling production featuring JPR Williams and Gerald Davies, Bennett and David Burcher and, most vitally, Steve Fenwick with the most exquisite of passes, that sent Benny in between the posts.

Absolutely magical. If Wales are to conjure up something similar this time around, Murrayfield will definitely be the place to be.

Top Stories