Cyril Lowe: England's First World War flyer
April 15, 2014
England in 1914: (back row, l-r) Alfred Maynard, Arthur Dingle, Bungy Watson, Cyril Lowe, Sidney Smart, G Ward, Joseph Brunton, JE Greenwood; (front row, l-r) William Johnston, Cherry Pillman, HC Harrison, Ronald Poulton-Palmer, Bruno Brown, Francis Oakeley, WJA 'Dave' Davies. © Getty Images
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. An estimated 20,000 spectators at the Stade Colombes on the outskirts of Paris saw England, led by Ronald Poulton, go in pursuit of a second consecutive Grand Slam.
Given what was to follow it is inevitable that this match has come to be seen in terms of the 11 men who did not return from the war. On France's side they were the half-backs Marcel Burgun and Jean Larribeau and three forwards, Emmanuel Iguinitz, Felix Faure and Jean-Jacques Conilh de Beyssac.
Six Englishmen died - Poulton, debutant forward Robert Pillman and wing Arthur Dingle on army service, along with three of the team's four naval officers, scrum-half Francis Oakeley, centre James 'Bungy' Watson and VC-winning forward Arthur Harrison. Iguinitz, Oakeley and Watson were dead before the end of 1914.
France led twice and trailed by only 13-8 at the break, but England gradually wore down their forwards and ran amok in the second half to win 39-13, scoring nine tries in all. Four of them were scored by Poulton, an appropriate conclusion to a career which made him - along with his fellow Rugbeian Rupert Brooke - the exemplar of the war's Lost Generation.
Yet to concentrate on Poulton and the other war victims is to miss the contribution made by the longest-lived survivor of the match. Cyril Lowe, the only member of England's threequarter line still alive 18 months after the match, lived until 1983.
But that longevity was the least of his claims to fame. Lowe was dubbed by John Daniell, the former England captain who was rated the most perceptive and knowledgeable of selectors, as "easily the best right wing in any England XV of my time."
To the Welsh critic WJ Townsend Collins he had "all the gifts the ideal wing needs, all the qualities of mind and heart which lift a man above the crowd, all the skills of the complete footballer."
Scrum's own John Griffiths, ranking the 50 greatest England players in 2003, placed him 14th and second only to Rory Underwood among wingers.
This was one of the days which underpinned that rating. His was an international career which might easily have been cut off early. He had the credentials of an outstanding all-round sporting career at Dulwich College and three Cambridge blues in an outstanding era of Varsity-bred threequarter talent.
But his first international season, 1913, had been disappointing. He was criticised for failing to link with Poulton at a crucial moment in his debut against South Africa, struggled defensively against pacy Welsh wing Billy Geen and at 5ft 6in was reckoned by one vehement letter-writer to the sporting press to be simply too small. He failed to score in five matches, although one explanation for that was contained in the satirical poem The Great Day by his fellow Old Alleynian PG Wodehouse, recounting in joky couplets the shock of 'the afternoon when somebody passed to Lowe'.
Cyril Lowe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Military Cross for his services during World War One © Getty Images
Plenty of promising international careers have been sunk by such a record. But somebody clearly passed to Lowe in the final trial for the 1914 season, when he scored four tries and dropped a goal, as well as halting giant forward Henry 'Dreadnought' Harrison in his tracks with a tackle. Such a performance could hardly be ignored even in a match whose 42-27 scoreline, wildly out of character for its times, was described by selector James 'Bim' Baxter as 'a rather good cricket match.'
There was no try in the first match against Wales, but Lowe broke his duck by scoring twice against Ireland. Before the following match against Scotland at Inverleith, he and opposing wing John Will - a Cambridge team-mate - each bet the other that he would not score. Both lost. Lowe crossed three times and joined with Watson in the desperate late tackle that prevented Will from claiming his hat-trick.
Then came that final, fateful trip to Paris and three more tries. Both his consecutive hat-tricks and eight-try season remain championship records, each equalled by Ian Smith of Scotland in 1925, but never exceeded (although Smith claimed his eight through consecutive four-try matches).
That match in 1914 might easily have been the end of his international rugby, as it was for 24 of the 30 men who played. Marcel Lubin-Lebrere, who returned to the French team in 1920 minus one eye and the 17 bullets that had been extracted from his body, was the only Frenchman.
Lowe returned for England along with outside-half WJA 'Dave' Davies and the forwards 'Jenny' Greenwood, 'Bruno' Brown and Sidney Smart. Like Lubin-Lebrere he had hardly been idle in the interim. He had joined the fledgling Royal Flying Corps (soon to become the RAF) as a pilot, won the Distinguished Flying Cross and Military Cross and was credited with shooting down nine German aircraft (although he reckoned the real total was 21).
Six years may have passed but little, if anything had been lost of pace which veteran critic EHD Sewell reckoned greater than any wing who emerged in the postwar era, or his other skills.
Lowe played for four more years which brought further Grand Slams in 1921 and 1923. He failed to score in the first two postwar internationals, or in his last two in 1923. But he scored in nine of the 12 matches in between, including two in the 1922 Calcutta Cup match.
He retired along with Davies after yet another Slam-completing match at the Stade Colombes in 1923. He departed as England's most capped player, with 25 appearances, and as the record international try-scorer for any one team with 18 - the 20 scored by Willie Llewellyn of Wales included four for the Lions.
The appearance record was taken three years later by Wavell Wakefield, recipient of a congratulatory pre-match telegram from Lowe, and the single-team try record - and with it the Five/Six Nations record, fell to Ian Smith.
Perhaps recalling those early days when he scarcely saw a pass he was later to say that he would have preferred to have played in a position which offered more involvement in the game. That he had the all-round skills to have played elsewhere is not in doubt. Collins, a demanding critic, reckoned him "one of the greatest and one of the most consistent of wing three-quarters', not least on 'days when he did two men's work in defence", and that "I never saw him play a bad game".
His interest in rugby was lifelong. In his late 80s he was an appreciative watcher of the brilliance of the now-legendary 1978 Australian Schools touring team, and he was still in England's record books when he died on February 6, 1983. His standing as England's most-capped wing did not quite outlive him, Peter Squires winning his 26th cap in 1979, but he remained the all-time record try-scorer until finally eclipsed by another RAF pilot, Rory Underwood, in 1990.
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