I don’t want to be killed yet: there is such a lot I wanted to do, or try anyhow,” Ronnie Poulton confided to a friend shortly before he was fatally shot by a sniper on 2 May 1915 on a Belgian battlefield. Thus the 25-year-old joined the ranks of the slaughtered, one of 26 English internationals to do so in World War One. None was more mourned, for Poulton was not only one of the all-time greats of our game but a tireless champion of the underprivileged, writes Rugby World deputy editor Alan Pearey.
His swerves and feints – “It’s no use looking at his head or body, for they seem to go in opposite directions to his legs,” wrote one observer – led to some electric runs on the rugby pitch a century ago, and gave added impetus to the innovative back-line tactics developed by Adrian Stoop at Harlequins. Poulton scored five tries in the 1909 Varsity Match, played a part in the first try ever seen at Twickenham, and scored a stunning try against the 1913 Springboks in a match that elevated him to superstar status. At 24 he captained England to a Grand Slam, marking his 17th Test with four tries against France in the final International played before the outbreak of war.
Author James Corsan has followed Poulton’s footsteps from Rugby School to Oxford University to the world-leading biscuit factory that was to have been his empire. His is a poignant portrait. At school Poulton played with Rupert Brooke, later to gain fame for his war poetry. In 1915, Rugby School held a joint memorial service after both were killed within a fortnight of each other.
Poulton, says Corsan, had a genius for both rugby and for enhancing the lives of others. “It was his special privilege that on a rugby field he could do both.”
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This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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