Ronnie Poulton “the greatest rugby player in the world”

Tuesday, 12th October 2021 @ 11:12

Harlequins Ancestors: Ronnie Poulton, "the greatest rugby player in the world.

Author: Graeme Roberts 

Ronnie Poulton was one of a generation of sportsman who excelled at everything they attempted. In a pantheon that includes CB Fry, Max Woosman, and James Parke, Poulton stands out. Poulton showed his promise early at his prep school, Oxford Preparatory School, now called ‘Dragon school’. His headmaster described him as "the best all-around athlete who had ever been at the school”. In one match, he scored 15 tries.

From there, he went to Rugby School, in Warwickshire. In his five years there he was four years in the rugby 1st XV, two years in the cricket XI and won the ‘Athletic Cup’. The 1907 XV, which he jointly captained, is remembered as the finest Rugby School has ever produced. In a match between the school and the Old Rugbeians, his prowess was noticed by an Old Rugbeian, Adrian Stoop. At Harlequins, Stoop had already applied an intelligent approach to improving the game with rigorous attention to detail, new ideas about changing the direction of attack, and deliberately surprising the opponent's defence. Ronnie’s skills matched these aims perfectly and, at Adrian’s behest, he made his debut for Quins against Richmond on October 3rd, 1908, scoring on his debut.

Initially, his appearances for the Club were few as he had just gone to Oxford University where he played for the rugby XV and hockey XI. In his first season there, he was not picked for the Varsity match. However, he did gain his first England cap that season against France and played against Ireland and Scotland.

The following season, George Cunningham, who later captained Scotland, was Oxford's skipper, and he selected Poulton in place of Vassall for the Varsity match, despite having the same three-quarter line as the previous year at his disposal. Vassall, for his part, was considered one of the world's best centres, and had made his mark in the previous three Varsity games, and in 1908 had played both for England against Ireland, and for the British Lions tour to New Zealand. The match came to be known as "Poulton's Match": within a brilliant performance by the Oxford backline, his tally of five tries remains unequalled.

Ronnie’s next England cap came in 1910 against Wales in the first International match at Twickenham. He played in the centre alongside fellow Quin, John Birkett, and outside his mentor, Adrian Stoop, at fly-half. It resulted in an England victory, a surprising win as Wales had been Grand Slam winners the previous two years.

Thirteen more caps followed along with the England captaincy in the final season (1913-14) before WW1. This resulted in a consecutive Grand Slam for England. Against France in the final match, Ronnie scored four tries, a record that stood for nearly 100 years until equalled by Chris Ashton in 2011. Ronnie’s achievement so impressed the French press that they described him as “the greatest rugby player in the world”.

What made him so?
Teddy Wakelam, a Quin who played with him, remembered in Harlequin Story that “He had great pace, a most deceptive swerve, an extraordinary ability to change the length of his stride and an unpredictability that confused the opposition”.

George Cunningham, his Oxford teammate and captain, wrote on hearing of Ronnie’s death: "He ran, as everyone remembers, with a curiously even, yet high-stepping motion, his head thrown back, the ball held in front at full arms' length. Invariably cheerful, seldom without a beaming smile on his face, he was a welcome companion on the football field and everywhere else.”

The style of play that Adrian Stoop had developed at Harlequins was ideal for Ronnie. After all, attack is the best form of defence. In 34 games for the Club, he scored 27 tries and a drop goal. That says it all.

However, Ronnie was not just a force on the pitch. In 1913 he inherited the estate of his Uncle George – head of the Palmer biscuit empire in Reading. Whilst this left him very comfortably off, he 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. In his precious leisure time, he devoted much of his time to running working men’s clubs and youth clubs. He also challenged the rugby establishment over its stand against player payment after it became apparent that a handful of players in Devon – farmers and fishermen – were being compensated for the day’s work they lost when playing on a Saturday. After they had been given life bans, the captain of England wrote to the Sportsman:

“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 as 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.”

Eighty years ahead of its time and less than 20 years after the split in English rugby that resulted in the formation of the Rugby League which weakened England’s rugby for nearly 15 years, naturally, it fell on deaf ears. However, if Ronnie had survived WW1 and risen to a high rank in the RFU the history of the game in England might have been radically different.

When WW1 broke out, Ronnie, like many a rugby player, immediately enlisted. He joined his Territorial Unit, the 4th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. On volunteering, his commitment to the cause is shown in the words he wrote to his parents, who were in Australia;

"Darling parents, nothing counts till this war is settled and Germany beat. 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."

In March 1915, they were posted to the Western Front. Just after midnight on the morning of 5th May, he was in charge of a working party at Ploegstreet Wood when he was shot by a sniper and killed. It was said that when the news of his death was broken to the battalion at morning reveille, there was not a dry eye amongst all the men stood to. Ronnie is buried in Hyde Park Cemetery, Belgium.

Ronnie has been inducted not only into the Harlequins Hall of Fame but also into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

His tale is one of such rich history that playwright Hugh Salmon - a relative of another Harlequins great in Adrian Stoop - has commissioned a play detailing Poulton's life. Debuting at the Greenwich theatre this evening (October 12), on show until October 31. Tickets for the play can be purchased here.

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