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Ronald Poulton

‘Ronnie’ Poulton was an extravagantly gifted centre threequarter who first came to prominence playing on the wing. He won a total of seventeen caps for England, scoring 28 points (comprised of eight tries and a drop goal), and had the distinction of captaining his country through an unbeaten Five Nations campaign in 1914, the last before the First World War began.

In just six short seasons of adult rugby, both at international level and with Oxford University, Harlequins, Liverpool and representative sides East Midlands and London, he left a huge and lasting impression upon fellow players and spectators as a personality, leader and brilliant runner. ‘Legend’ and ‘genius’ may be words in danger of over-use in a sporting context, but they could certainly be applied to this uncannily elusive will-o’-the-wisp, whose attacking exploits on the rugby field often seemed to defy the laws of physical nature.

Despite his acclaimed performances in his first term at Oxford, he failed to gain a blue in December 1908. In the end, and not for the only time in his career, concerns over the unorthodoxy of his skills prompted the selectors to rely upon ‘safer’ options. In Oxford’s case that season, to be fair, these included an entire seven-man back line of current or future internationals – five of them returning blues – plus a freshman, All Black Colin Gilray, who went on to become a dual international by playing for Scotland.  

If there were some journalists and figures of rugby authority who frowned upon playing in anything but the ‘grand’ manner, whether that was tactically or - in Poulton’s case - upon individual impulse, there were others less afraid of the new. One was Harlequins’ captain Adrian Stoop, who had been developing a brand of expansive threequarter play, in which slick passing, novel running lines and continual backing-up of the ball carrier were key components. Stoop, who had first spotted Poulton’s extraordinary potential at Rugby School, his own alma mater, had little hesitation in selecting him for the Harlequins first team and effectively giving him a license to thrill. It was an arrangement that benefited both parties and became no small factor in securing the club’s glamorous reputation for running rugby. Stoop was also instrumental behind the scenes in putting Poulton’s case to the national selectors. It was no coincidence that, just six weeks after failing to make the Varsity Match team, the Oxford reject made his England debut on 30th January 1909 against France at Welford Road at the age of nineteen.

A new rugby star was born. Poulton began the 1909/10 season as an established three-cap international and, in his Varsity Match debut, scored five tries from the wing – still the all-time individual record for the fixture. From this point until the outbreak of War he was one of the most celebrated - and sometimes controversial - rugby players in England, and therefore the Northern Hemisphere. It is true that initially his defence was comparatively weak and that, despite being a quintessential team player, his ability to combine with his fellow threequarters (or was it the other way around?) occasionally left something to be desired. However, he worked diligently upon both these aspects of his game and in time became a consummate all-round exponent of the art of centre play.

After winning two more Oxford blues – the second as captain – Poulton continued to play top class rugby despite the demands of his burgeoning business career. There was no ‘levelling out’ of his abilities between 1911 and 1914 – if anything, he appeared to become better and better, albeit less of an individualist, as time went on. Six months after completing what had been an exceptional 1912/13 season, even by his unique standards – by which time he was playing for Liverpool - he was appointed England captain for the 1914 international campaign. He thus became one of three sometime international captains then playing for the club – the others being the forward Fred Turner of Scotland, the club captain, and fly-half Dickie Lloyd of Ireland.

Poulton proved to be an outstanding captain who always got the best out of his men. A good deal of the credit for England’s unbeaten Five Nations campaign – their second in succession – was down to his personal playing contribution and cool leadership under pressure during a series of desperately close matches. In what turned out to be the last international before the First World War, a 39-13 defeat of France in Paris, he scored four tries and was hailed by French pundits and public alike as the greatest rugby player in the world.

Ronald Poulton was born on 12th September 1889 as the second son and fifth child of Edward Poulton, an Oxford zoology professor. All the Poulton children were academically bright and excelled at sport – brother Teddie was a two time hockey blue – but in this respect only Ronnie had been visited by genius. His mother was the daughter of George Palmer, co-founder of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit-making business in Reading, which Ronnie joined upon coming down from university. In 1914 he was left a significant fortune by his uncle G.W. Palmer on condition that he changed his surname to Palmer. As a result, he is often referred to in print as ‘Poulton Palmer’ or ‘Poulton-Palmer’ but, in strict legal terms, this is inaccurate - in fact, he simply changed his surname from Poulton to Palmer.

Within his own lifetime, for many Ronnie Poulton (later ‘Palmer’) came to epitomise an idealised form of English gentleman, renowned for his impeccable integrity and the honourable spirit in which he played his sport. Despite the many privileges and advantages bestowed upon him by birth - and indeed the public attention he received – throughout he remained a modest, humble and reflective individual. In their spare time he and his brother shared an abiding interest in social work and improving the lot of working men and their children. Ronnie’s warm, outgoing personality made him unfailingly popular both within his wide circle of friends and among those who knew him only by reputation from afar.

On the rugby field - tall, fair-haired and good-looking in the Obolensky or David Duckham mould – his characteristic style of running, with his head leaning back and the ball held out in both hands in front of him, together with his extraordinary skills, made him an idol of crowds wherever he played. It would not be fanciful to suggest that Poulton was one of the most remarkable rugby players, not just of his era, but who has ever graced the game.

Though not a military man by inclination, faced with the perceived growing threat from Germany, Poulton’s keen sense of patriotic duty caused him to join the Oxford University Officer Training Corps soon after it was founded in the autumn of 1908. After going down from Oxford, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in a territorial battalion of Royal Berkshire Regiment, this at a time when territorial units were intended only for ‘home defence’. Nevertheless, soon after the declaration of War, Poulton - along with many of his battalion - volunteered to serve overseas and thereafter spent seven months in training at Chelmsford before embarking for the Western Front the following spring. Just five weeks later, whilst supervising engineering works in a trench just north of Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium, he was shot dead by a sniper about twenty minutes after midnight on 5th May 1915 . He was aged twenty-five.


© James Corsan, 2010
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