From The Vaults

20 January 2023
England's Greatest Ever Side?

As the 2023 Six Nations Championship approaches, the sense of anticipation that pervades this great competition builds as it has done every January for more than 130 years.

Rugby lovers, journalists and historians still argue over the finest sides that this long-running championship has produced. If you are an England supporter, the early 1990s in which England won two consecutive Grand Slams and reached a World Cup final, and the early 2000s where, although there was only one Grand Slam, the holy grail was reached with the World Cup triumph in Sydney are strong contenders. In the days before the Rugby World Cup when the International Championship was the principal rugby union competition, there was one illustrious period in English rugby in which two outstanding players played their parts in one of England's greatest eras.

Two weeks later this England team with just two changes travelled to Cardiff and convincingly beat Wales by 12 points to nil at Cardiff Arms Park scoring all their points in the second half. A week later France came to Twickenham and were comprehensively defeated by 20 points to nil. England's third championship match was at Lansdowne Road on February 8th. The Irish team was no match for England's superior forwards and the outcome was a 15-4 victory which set up a Grand Slam clash at Twickenham against Scotland five weeks later. This was a much tighter affair and the sole score was an unconverted try by the Oxford University forward LG 'Bruno' Brown just before the interval which gave England their first ever grand Slam.

England v Wales, 1914

A year later, England opened their 1914 championship campaign at Twickenham against Wales under the captaincy of Ronald Poulton. Cyril Lowe remained unchallenged for his position on the right wing, but surprisingly WJA Davies and his Royal Navy scrum half partner Francis Oakeley were dropped for the Leicester pair of FM 'Tim' Taylor and GW 'Pedlar' Wood who had combined well in the final trial. England won 10-9 with a try by wing forward CH 'Cherry' Pillman in the final minutes of the match but the selectors decided to recall Davies and Oakeley for the remaining matches of the season. The unlucky Leicester half back duo was never picked again for England.

Ireland came to Twickenham on February 14th and started promisingly. Playing with the wind they were leading 7-0 after ten minutes, but England scored 17 unanswered points including five tries with two being scored by Lowe and one by Davies. A late converted try for Ireland gave the score greater respectability but the final score line of 17-12 was conclusive.

The English team travelled to Inverleith five weeks later to face a formidable Scottish team in a match that is still regarded as one of the greatest ever played. England led by 16 points to 6 with fifteen minutes remaining, Cyril Lowe having scored three tries, and held on despite a Scottish revival to win 16-15. A month later the English side travelled to Paris with an unchanged backline and demolished France by 39-13. Ronald Poulton scored four tries, Lowe scored three tries and the increasingly influential Davies scored one try. A second consecutive Grand Slam had been secured. Just how good this England side might have become in the ensuing years was sadly never to be discovered. Six members of the 1914 Grand Slam side lost their lives in the 1st World War.

The International Championship resumed in 1920 with England facing Wales at St Helen's, Swansea on January 17th. There were 11 new caps under the captaincy of the experienced forward JE 'Jenny' Greenwood but Cyril Lowe remained on the right wing for his ninth consecutive cap. It was not a happy day for the English forwards and the Welsh team pulled away in the second half to win 19-5 with centre Jerry Shea scoring a record 16 points on his championship debut.

England were dominant throughout the entire 1921 championship and all but cruised to a 3rd Grand Slam. They scored 61 points and 13 tries in the four matches while only conceding nine points including one try. Davies was now the captain and his masterly management of his team's resources ensured England's superiority. Lowe scored three more tries to take his total to 13 in all international matches. Ireland and Scotland failed to score a point against England and only France in Paris in the final match threatened to overturn England in a close 10-6 match in the presence of Marshall Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied armies during the 1st World War.

The English campaign opened badly in 1922 with a massive 28-6 defeat at Cardiff Arms Park in which England conceded 8 tries. WJA Davies had withdrawn after selection to be replaced by Vivian Davies, the Harlequins fly half, and the only consolation was that Lowe scored another try in a losing cause. The rest of the season was more successful. With WJA Davies restored as captain and fly half, Lowe scored one of four tries in a 12-3 defeat of Ireland in Dublin, the Leicester winger Harold Day kicked 8 vital points to secure an 11-11 draw against France, and Davies with one try and Lowe with two tries ensured an 11-5 victory against Scotland at Twickenham.

Another very tight encounter at Inverleith saw England beat Scotland by 8 points to 6 through a late Tom Voyce try converted from a difficult angle by the Devonport Services front row forward Bill Luddington. Just France remained on Easter Monday April 2nd and WJA Davies on his honeymoon in Paris dropped a goal to seal a 12-3 victory and secure England's 4th Grand Slam in six championships. It was his 11th match as captain and he had been on the losing side in only one of his 22 internationals. One of the all-time greats, his cap record as England fly half was only overtaken by Rob Andrew in 1989.


  • The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 - John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
  • History of Welsh International Rugby - John Billot (2nd edition, Roman Way Books 1999)
  • The International Rugby Championship 1883-1983 - Terry Godwin (Willow Books 1984)
  • Scottish Rugby Game by Game - Kenneth R Bogle (Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh 2013)

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.