There have been many great tries through the history of rugby union. However, this analysis will look at one of the most exceptional team tries ever scored; Phil Bennett’s effort against Scotland in 1977.
The previous year Wales had won the Grand Slam, but in 1977 they had, surprisingly at the time, lost to France, so there would be no repeat. Their final game of the Championship was against Scotland when this incredible try occurred.
After JPR Williams takes a tackle from Sandy Carmichael, the Scottish prop forward, he has the presence of mind to offload the ball onto Steve Fenwick. As you can see, Fenwick has the opportunity if he so wishes to calm things down, and, after being on defence, kick the ball into touch, as per the blue arrow on the below picture. He now has the time and space to steady himself and clear the ball via a kick. Wales have been under pressure and a kick to touch would allow them to regroup. However, Wales played a style of attacking free-flowing rugby where they were confident of keeping the ball in hand and attacking with it if the numbers weighed in their favour. The Scottish defence is not structured, after being on offence, and is not aligned defensively. They are down on numbers in the area that Wales move into, and they have numbers in support. Three players instantly react as you can see below; they go on the attack.
The footwork of Gerald Davies
After Fenwick passes the ball onto winger Gerald Davies, the player sidesteps inside the Scotland centre, Alistair Cranston, leaving him sprawling on the ground, and then the same to hooker Douglas Madsen, before delivering a hand-off. He then releases Phil Bennett. Davies was an incredible player, and could do incredible individual things. Having a player who can make something out of nothing is such an asset for an attacking side, and for the defence, it puts them in a weaker position. In this movement, he has beaten two players in a tight situation, which creates mismatches of numbers with his ability to take three players instantly out of the game. He has now put himself in some space, but he also has the vision and skill to pass at the correct time to a person in a better position.
The drawing of the man
In the below picture, Phil Bennett takes the pass from Davies and now has a Scottish defender, Jim Renwick, directly in front of him. His teammate on the inside is not yet in a position to take a pass, and with two Scottish defenders racing back, the only option to keep the ball in hand is to pass outside to the Welsh number 12, David Burcher. To give Burcher the perfectly timed pass, Bennett holds Renwick in place as long as possible. The Scotsman cannot move from Bennett as even though he knows the pass is likely, if he goes too soon, Bennett will simply keep the ball and run into the space left by Renwick. The drawing of the man and the timing of the pass is superbly executed by Bennett. It was the perfect example of how to hold a defender long enough to take them out of the game and release your teammate into the space.
Running out of space
When Burcher takes the pass, he is now running on a diagonal angle towards the touchline with two Scottish defenders closing in. He has no option outside of him, which, with the slant he is running on, and with the two defenders on similar angles, would be no use. Any supporting player outside of him would just be tackled into touch, and the opportunity would be over. Burcher knows that to continue the play, he has to look inside. He can potentially choose an option to kick, but then with the bounce of the ball and defenders racing back, Scotland could steal the the ball back, so he wants to keep the ball in hand. The challenge is that nobody is that close to him and to make an inside pass whilst running at full speed is very difficult. His solution is to put the pass in the air and, in a skill reminiscent of LA Lakers basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “skyhook” the ball to Fenwick, who has continued his efforts to get up the pitch in support. It is an unusual pass to see in rugby union, but here it is so effective, with great improvisation, and it takes the two Scottish defenders away from where the pass is heading.
Slight of hand
Fenwick receives the pass from Burcher. The challenge he has is that, as the ball is dropping into his hands from the high trajectory of the pass, a Scottish defender has him in his sights, ready to hit the man and ball. The speed of taking the pass, and the vision to see Bennett on the inside is extraordinary, as is the ability to execute the move. It is almost an instantaneous motion; Fenwick takes the pass and offloads to Bennett. The Scottish defender tackles Fenwick, but it’s a meaningless tackle, as the ball is gone and the play has been sustained.
As you can see in the above picture, after Fenwick is tackled and the Scottish defender directly opposite is also on the floor, there is one defender left who can stop this free-flowing attack. He is moving across and is the last chance for Scotland (circled above). Bennett puts in a gorgeous side-step and is away from him, and whilst there is another despairing defender who tries to tap his ankles. It is too late to stop the try. There is nobody left to defend as Bennett goes under the posts and lies on the floor with the ball under his chin.
On that day, Wales in their backline had five current British and Irish Lions, and the other two that made up the backline were to be Lions by the end of that year after going on the 1977 New Zealand tour. The skillsets they had were therefore superb. They were given the freedom to express themselves, and if they felt an opportunity gave itself then they backed themselves, and this try is the perfect example of this. When Fenwick is first involved in the move back in the Welsh half, you can see people react and behold that there was an opportunity to attack, and then each player involved had the skill and awareness to execute.
Recently, the Welsh Rugby Union ran a competition to choose the greatest try Wales have ever scored, and this effort from Phil Bennett was chosen. Simply, it was a great try.