The final match before the War to End All Wars
October 31, 1978
England's last pre-War captain, Ronald Poulton © Getty Images
A century ago, two nations who would soon become allies lined up as opponents for the final international match before the First World War wrought havoc in Europe.
Led by captain Ronald Poulton, England travelled to Paris as 1914 Triple Crown champions and, although the Grand Slam as such did not exist - the term only coined after England won all four matches in 1957 - the visitors were keen to finish on a winning note.
It was a balmy afternoon in Paris. The rugby season was traditionally done and dusted by Easter, leaving sporting gentleman free to play cricket as the weather improved during spring. But a scheduling quirk meant England met France on Easter Monday for a last hurrah before war came to Europe.
Some 20,000 spectators packed into the Stade de Colombes to see two sides who were evenly matched in a tough first-half. Much to the delight of the home crowd, France put the first points on the board, but at half-time England were narrowly ahead, 13-8.
However, in a display that bears an uncanny resemblance to their performance against England in the 2014 Six Nations, the 1914 France team fell apart in the second half. While their 21st century cousins might have battled back with a late try to win at the Stade de France, the 20th century vintage simply rolled over as England racked up the points.
England accelerated away from the sorry French thanks to a hat-trick of tries from star winger Cyril Lowe and four from captain Poulton. Further scores came from fly-half Dave Davies and the brilliantly-named James 'Bungy' Watson.
As the Daily Mirror reported, the French were powerless to stop the rampant English: "In the second half England had matters all their own way. The French scrum proved altogether too light and did not get the ball in the second half more than five times, and nearly every time the English backs go going, Poulton and Lowe being most conspicuous, and scoring most of the tries."
England ran out 39-13 winners, securing their second 'Grand Slam' in a row, with the Mirror saying that French supporters were forced to admit the England side were "the best that had ever been sent over."
That Mirror report from April 14, 1914 paints a picture of a match played in the full-blooded style we still love today. It continues: "Contested at a fine pace from start to finish, the match produced very hard play. As a general rule, the Frenchmen tackled too high, but all the same their defence was quite good. In the last quarter of an hour, however, the English backs played in brilliant fashion and their attacks could not be resisted."
With his four tries, Poulton was hailed as one of the best players in the world. The Rugby Paper's Brendan Gallagher, writing earlier this month, described a fine athlete: "Poulton 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."
However, on that fine Parisian afternoon, neither side could be aware that they were playing in the last Five Nations Test for six years. Four months later, England would declare war on Germany and the sporting would fade into insignificance.
The tragedy for both teams was far more serious than a simple loss of rugby. Being young men in the prime of life, players from both sides went to fight and many lost their lives on the Western Front and at sea.
In all, 11 men from that final match are thought to have been killed in the First World War. Scrum's Huw Richards, writing in his Rewind column, identifies them:
"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," writes Richards.
"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."
When war broke out, Poulton was running a summer camp for kids but within days he had signed up to fight. Writing to his parents, who were in Australia, Poulton was determined to answer his country's call on the battlefield. He wrote: "Darling parents, nothing counts til 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."
That match on Easter Monday would be the last time 24 of the 30 men would play international rugby. After the war, hat-trick hero Lowe appeared for England along with Davies and the forwards Jenny Greenwood, Bruno Brown and Sidney Smart. Of the France squad, just one - Marcel Lubin-Lebrere - returned, and that was after the loss of an eye.
Although war ended in 1918, international rugby did not start again until 1920. It was not long however, before it would be interrupted for a second time with the outbreak of World War Two.
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
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