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Brendan Gallagher: Balm before the storm: England’s 1914 Slam

England v Wales 1914Exactly 100 years ago the rugby season in England was fast drawing innocently to a close. In those days, with most clubs taking their cue from the nation’s finest public schools, sporting gentlemen played rugby until Easter at which point they retrieved their well-oiled cricket bats from the loft and disappeared in search of net practice.

Internationally there was still, unusually, one match hanging over from the Five Nations competition with England needing to play at Stade Colombes on Easter Monday.

England had already won the Triple Crown by the time they took the Dover ferry to Calais and although the Grand Slam as such did not exist – the term was coined by a bridge-loving sub-editor on The Times after England won all four matches in 1957– Ronnie Poulton-Palmer’s team were keen to finish on a winning note.

No worries there. Poulton-Palmer had the golden touch and helped himself to four tries while his wing Cyril Lowe continued his prolific form with a hat-trick as England marched to an impressive 39-13 win. Poulton-Palmer’s fellow centre James ‘Bungy’ Watson also darted in and England’s ninth try came from their mercurial Welsh born fly-half WJA Davies.

Paris in springtime, an unwitting last hurrah because unbeknown it would be six years before an England rugby team took the field again. Four of the England back division at the Stade Colombes did not survive the Great War – Poulton-Palmer, Watson, wing Arthur ‘Mud’ Dingle and scrum-half Francis Oakley were all killed in action with Oakley and Watson both dead before Christmas 1914.

A fifth England player that carefree afternoon, lock Arthur Harrison, was killed in 1918 and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the Zeebrugge Raid in April, 1918.

Poulton-Palmer was the blazing star for England as they collected their second ‘Grand Slam’ on the bounce and on the surface appeared to be the epitome of Edwardian superiority and effortless athletic brilliance. A dashing blond figure, contemporary reports suggest a modern day cross between Richard Sharp and David Duckham in attack and Jonny Wilkinson in defence.

Ronnie Poulton-Palmer

Ronnie Poulton-Palmer

For most of his career he was plain Ronnie Poulton but then his rich Uncle George – head of the Palmer biscuit empire – died and his will stated that Poulton would inherit the entire estate after 21 years if he changed his surname. In the meantime he could draw an annual stipend of £4,000, approximately £200,000 in today’s values. Possibly not the most difficult of decisions.

Rugby-educated Poulton-Palmer – he played centre with Rupert Brooke in his final year at school – was something of a maverick, though. He was a captain so modest that he refused to be photographed with the ball, the traditional mark of seniority, when the time came for team photographs.

And he was an Oxford Blue – he scored a record five tries in his first Varsity match – and member of the elite who possessed a social conscience and devoted most of his precious leisure time to running working men’s clubs and what we would now recognise as youth clubs. He did not have to work for a living but put in 50-60 hour weeks, including Saturday mornings, learning the trade on the shop floor at Palmer’s factories in Reading and Manchester and attending night classes.

Fully 80 years before Will Carling attacked the “old farts” Poulton-Palmer also made his voice known when the RFU blazers got heavy after it became apparent that a handful of players in Devon – farmers and fishermen – were being slipped a few bob to compensate them for the day’s work they lost when competing for their teams each Saturday. The captain of England happily put his head above the parapet when he wrote to the Sportsman following their life bans:

“Was this not the opportunity to put the game on an immovable basis among all classes by making an alteration in the laws of the game relating to professionalism so as to legislate for a carefully arranged payment for ‘broken time’ for men who are paid weekly and monthly?  It is difficult to see how such an offence can be construed as professionalism. A man does not, or under careful regulations, would not receive any addition to his normal weekly wage but would be paid merely for the hours of work missed through football. He would then be exactly in the same position of many businessmen who, in the enjoyment of a settled income, leave their work early to catch the necessary train to the match. Such an action that the RU committee have taken will do much to prevent the expansion of the Rugby game and so reduce the value to England of the most democratic of sports.”

Bravo. Enlightened stuff bursting with common sense although, naturally, it fell on deaf ears. Still you cannot help feeling that if Poulton-Palmer had been spared and risen to high rank in the RFU after the War the history of the game in England might have been radically different.

The 1914 Championship campaign itself had been far from straightforward for England despite the firepower that Poulton-Palmer and Lowe provided.

First up in those days was always Wales and England squeezed past the Welsh with tries from “Bruno” Brown and wing forward Cherry Pillman before a much more convincing performance against Ireland a month later which was played in front of an estimated 40,000 crowd at the height of the Home Rule debate in Parliament.

Violent demonstrations were anticipated and there was a large police presence outside the ground on the day but not for the first time rugby rose above the politics and England won an entertaining game, outscoring Ireland five tries to two in their 17-12 victory, Lowe adding to his growing reputation with a brace of tries.

The opposition captain that day was his club colleague at Liverpool Dickie Lloyd, the Ireland fly-half: “During my experience of rugby football Ronald Poulton was the greatest player I ever came in contact with, it was the glorious uncertainty of his play that appeal to friend and foe. I studied his play very carefully and I don’t ever remember him doing the same thing twice.

“It will be a long time before a rugger crowd will have the pleasure of seeing another Poulton as he was a born genius once he got the ball into his hands. It was as much a pleasure to play against him as with him for he was always the same fascinating figure apparently doing nothing but always doing a great deal.”

The Calcutta Cup match came next up in Inverleith and was a classic with Lowe scoring a hat-trick although England,

16-6 leaders at one stage, were left hanging on by one point as Scotland staged a remarkable recovery. Six of that Scotland side incidentally were not to survive the Great War, either.

When War was declared in August 1914 Poulton-Palmer was running a youth club summer camp but within days he had joined his Territorial Unit, the 4th Berkshire, and wrote to his parents, who were on holiday in Australia: “Darling parents, nothing counts till this war is settled and Germany beaten. You can’t realise in Australia what is happening here. Germany has to be smashed, i.e. I mean the military party and everybody realises and everybody is volunteering. Those who are best trained are most wanted so I would be a skunk to hold back.”

History was to show that Poulton-Palmer and his team – and indeed their opponents – were never the type to hold back.

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