Alexander Obolensky

Alexander Obolensky


Obolensky’s try is so deeply embedded in my memory that I feel I must have seen it. Yet it took place at Twickenham on 4 January 1936, 23 months before I was born. The exiled Russian prince actually scored two tries that day in England’s 13-0 victory, the first ever inflicted on the All Blacks on English soil.

Memories have been flooding back because of the publication of the first biography of the legendary winger, The Flying Prince by Hugh Godwin, a journalist on the Independent in England. It is a remarkably well-researched and entertaining book and has been rightly praised in reviews.

I have been writing about Obolensky for over 20 years, mainly in a sports column I wrote for the Daily Telegraph. My enthusiasm led to my being invited as guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Obolensky Association, which is held every year in London at Rosslyn Park, one of several clubs he played for.

I had thought of writing a book myself, but was deterred by the fact that only two days in Alexander Obolensky’s 24-year life really seemed to matter: the January day in 1936 when he scored his legendary try and 29 March, 1940, when he died landing a Hurricane on a training flight at Martlesham in Suffolk.

Godwin’s book shows that there was much more to say about this extraordinary man. He had arrived with his family in England days before his third birthday in 1916, just ahead of the Soviet Revolution that was to murder the Tsar and the rest of the Royal Family and many aristocrats, including some Obolenkys. His family were descendants of the Ruric dynasty that ruled Russia for several centuries before the Romanovs.

For all their historic grandeur, the Obolensky family lived in poverty in England, relieved by charitable gifts from friends and fellow exiles. Jack Green, a rich and rather eccentric philanthropist provided the Obolenskys with a country house and agreed to pay school fees for the children, in return for a vague promise that he would acquire their lands in Russia if they were ever returned to the family.

The fees available did not run to education at Eton or Harrow, but allowed Alex to board at Trent College in Nottinghamshire, a school of cold baths and cross-country runs, led benignly by a headmaster, Geofrrey Bell, who had won an MC in the First World and an Oxford blue at cricket.

When Alex reached the sixth form he led the team to two victorious, record-breaking seasons, scoring 36 tries in the first and 49 in the second. He was also the school’s best sprinter and showed promise as a cricketer.

At Brasenose College, Oxford, where he was to spend four years scraping a fourth class degree, he soon attracted the attention of the university and also the England selectors. After winning a rugby blue he was selected in his second year for England, making his debut at the age of 19 in that historic match against New Zealand.

Eddie Jones, England’s head coach, was mocked last weekend for putting out what one writer called a “playgroup” team to face the mighty Springboks, the world champions. In, fact, of course, they won – and no members of the so-called “playgroup” were as young as 19.

I was given newsreel clips of Obolensky’s two tries by Jeff Butterfield, the great England centre of the 1950s, when he ran the Rugby Club in London. So I have watched and rewatched them many times. The first try was almost as good as the second. Obolensky received the ball in midfield inside his own half, raced outside one opponent, then swerved inside another, slipping onto one knee as he did so. But he recovers, lengthens his stride, hits top pace and no one can touch him as he gallops to the line, the cheers of the crowed ringing in his ears.

The noise of the crowd was described by one paper as “a bull-throated roar,” Godwin describes it as “almost primeval, from somewhere deep in the soul at bearing witness to the battleground of rugby elevated to a rare plane of beauty.”

For the second try Obolensky came inside off his wing and took the ball from the fly-half on his chest with both hands. He skipped as he received the ball and faced left instead of racing down the right wing, as he had before. He appeared to sense “ a tunnel” to his left and headed along it, cutting left all the time and leaving the desperate All Black defenders out of position. He was moving too quickly for them to turn and catch up.. He touched down in the left-hand corner for what is regarded by many as the greatest try ever seen at Twickenham.

The victory over the All Blacks, the beauty of his tries, his romantic background as an exiled Russian prince, together with his looks and his youth, made Obolensky an immediate national hero, greeted as a celebrity wherever he went. He appeared in fashionable magazines with a series of beautiful women, usually smoking and dressed in white tie and tails.

He played in all four home internationals that season, but curiously never played for England again, although he was often on the brink of selection and left out once after being bitten by a dog while rescuing it from under a crashed car.

He played for Oxford University (29 tries), Rosslyn Park (21 tries) Leicester, Nottingham, the Barbarians, Midland Counties, Middlesex and Notts, Lincs and Derby. He went with a British Lions tour to South America in the summer of 1936, scoring six tries and gaining a reputation for chasing women.

I was surprised to see that one of his team-mates on that tour was Owen Chadwick, a hooker. who was later head of my college at Cambridge. I wish I could have talked to him about Obolensky when I was an undergraduate, but Chadwick, a deeply religious man, never talked about his rugby career.

Although Alex was seen with many attractive females, the most serious liaison was with a fellow exile, Tania Vorontsov-Dachkov, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Count who was ADC to the Tsar and played tennis with him and a ballerina who had danced with Pavlova and Nijinski. His imperious mother stopped the marriage, possibly because Tania was four years older than Alex and had no money.

Friends described her as the love of Oboloensky’s life ,and that their parting was “very painful to both of them,” Along with his father, she was the only person he asked the RAF to notify in the event of his death. By then she had married a rich Englishman who had won medals at international ice-hockey.

Obolensky died on flying training, trying to land a Hurricane, a difficult plane of which he had little experience, by flying in too high and too fast. He landed the front wheels, but the tail was in the air and turned the plane over. He was killed instantly.

The death of such a celebrated and popular figure gave rise to national mourning. Ivor Brown, soon to be editor of The Observer, captured the public mood. He wrote that “something unique has vanished, a flash of beauty, an excitement of the senses…on his great days he was unforgettable…His use of speed could make the heart jump suddenly, start a shiver of ecstasy and set the senses a-tingle. …he put a glory into things.”


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