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John Griffiths is a widely respected rugby historian and is the author of several sports books, including The Book of English International Rugby, The Book of International Rugby Records, British Lions, The Five Nations Championship, Rugby's Strangest Matches and Rugby's Greatest Characters. He was a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph for 19 years and is co-author of the IRB International Rugby Yearbook. He has also provided insight for since 1999.

A hundred years ago ...
The calm before the storm
John Griffiths
February 4, 2014
The England team of 1914 © PA Photos

The anticipation has built steadily since Christmas. The excitement has seen fans cheerfully preparing to support their countries and arranging visits to renew old friendships. The Six Nations - Five Nations or International Championship in old money - is here again.

Just as Christmas is the time for families to reflect, so the advent of the tournament gives seasoned rugby followers the opportunity to wallow in past memories. And as Europe prepares to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, what more appropriate season to reflect on than 1914?

The story of that rugby campaign is quickly told. There was little to choose between England, Wales and Ireland and in hindsight the title depended on the England-Wales game at Twickenham. The ground was only four years old and a ticket for one of the best seats in the prosaically named "Stand B" (on the East touchline) would have cost the princely sum of six shillings (30p).

England won by the "small and artistic margin of one point" according the rugby representative of The Times. Tries by "Bruno" Brown and "Cherry" Pillman, an early wing-forward expert, were both converted in a 10-9 victory.

Lord Howe, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, King George V and Arthur Hartley (the President of the Rugby Association) watch the match, England v Ireland, Five Nations, February 2, 1914
Lord Howe, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, King George V and Arthur Hartley (the President of the Rugby Association) take in England v Ireland in 1914 © PA Photos

A month later England overcame Ireland 17-12, watched from the Royal Box (in Stand "A" of course) by HM King George V, a frequent Twickenham visitor. The Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, was there, too. Parliament was engaged in a tricky debate about Home Rule for Ireland, but tensions about extremist demonstrations at the ground proved unfounded.

Then in March, the Calcutta Cup in Edinburgh threw up the most thrilling game of the season, England carrying off the Triple Crown beating the Scots 16-15. Scotland led twice before England went 16-6 clear in the second half. Cue a remarkable Scottish revival. A dropped goal - four points then - and a breathtaking try by John Will from a foot-race against the English speedster, "Kid" Lowe, was converted to leave England hanging on to win by a point.

Ireland and Wales had met the week before to decide the runners-up, each having beaten the Scots. The game in Belfast went down as one of the roughest ever, several stoppages occurring as players required treatment for injuries. The Welsh pack that season were known - not without good reason - as "The Terrible Eight" and a torrid private barney took place between Wales's Percy Jones and William Tyrrell, the Irish pack-leader.

Ireland scored first but Wales took charge to win 11-3. Jones, a colliery worker, and Tyrrell, a medic, patched up their differences at the post-match banquet and established a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Years later, when as Air Vice-Marshal Sir William Tyrrell he was President of the IRFU, the Ulsterman made a special request to the WRU to be seated with his old sparring partner at a Wales-Ireland post-match banquet in Cardiff.

What about France? Although today's record books show them "joining" the Five Nations in 1910, the contemporary media regarded the then-fledgling rugby nation as also-rans. Championship tables only recognised the matches among the Home Unions, while reviews of the season covered "The Matches with France" as a bolt-on to their main Championship sections.

France, like Scotland, lost all their games and ended the season with a 39-13 drubbing from England. France and Scotland did not meet. Their match in Paris the year before had ended in a riot, so the Scots declined to host them in Edinburgh in 1914.

England's Ronald Poulton-Palmer, England v Scotland, Five Nations, March 21, 1914
England's Ronald Poulton-Palmer © PA Photos

Inevitably it's the subsequent lives of those players who joined forces to wage War that commands the most interest. Sportsmen in general were prominent supporting their national causes, setting exemplary standards for others from all walks of society to follow. In his book Death's Men the historian Denis Winter makes special mention of the sacrifices rugby union players made, stressing the alacrity with which players from the 1914 Championship season joined up.

A look at the exploits of the national leaders gives an insight to the contribution rugby players made. William Tyrrell, Ireland's pack-leader, won an M.C., D.S.O. and Bar, and several mentions in dispatches serving with the R.A.M.C. before transferring to the R.A.F. medical service in 1918.

Wales were led by Rev. Alban Davies throughout their Five Nations campaign. His mild-mannered persona as a clergyman off the field belied the fire-and-brimstone character who headed the "Terrible Eight" on it. He served with the Royal Field Artillery as a chaplain during the War.

In 1914, the Liverpool club uniquely boasted three international rugby captains in its playing ranks: Ronnie Poulton-Palmer (England), Dickie Lloyd (Ireland) and Freddie Turner, who had led Scotland in 1913.

As skipper, Lieut. Poulton-Palmer had scored four tries against the French in April to add the Grand Slam to England's Triple Crown. Widely regarded as the outstanding threequarter of the day, he held such noble ideas on equality that even when captaining England he refused to be photographed with the ball, the skipper's traditional badge of honour.

The respect he earned on the rugby field attended him in War. When he fell to a sniper in the trenches at Ploegsteert Wood in 1915 his commanding officer wrote: "He died for England, beloved by everyone in his Regiment. He will always be an inspiration to those of us who remain." News of Poulton-Palmer's death warranted banner headlines in the British press.

Capt. Lloyd and Lieut. Turner joined the Liverpool Scottish within weeks of the outbreak of War. Lloyd survived to lead Ireland again when internationals resumed in 1920. Turner was shot by a sniper near Kemmel in January 1915. The two captains he had served in the 1914 Championship were also killed in action. Capt. David Bain (Scotland's skipper against Wales) was only 23 when he died in the shell blast that destroyed his dug-out in Festubert in 1915, while Lieut. Eric Milroy (who led against Ireland and England) died in the hellfire of Delville Wood in 1916.

Milroy and Poulton-Palmer had opposed each other in the Calcutta Cup match. Eleven of the thirty who took part in that match fell in the War and, all told, of the nearly a quarter of the 116 players who participated in the nine International Championship matches of 1914 were killed in action or died later from their wounds.

Their stories, and those of the many other rugby internationalists of earlier years who died with them, will be in players and followers minds as this season progresses. Quite right, too. We shall remember them.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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