Listen to this article
Prince Alexander Obolensky trots on to the Twickenham pitch to play for England.
It is January 1936, and England are facing New Zealand.
Lining up for a team picture, the 19-year-old Russian émigré with the hooded eyes surveys the crowd. He and his team-
mates are skeletal waifs compared with the rugby players of the future.
Had “Obo” lived, he would have turned 90 on February 17. As it is, he
is remembered only for
that afternoon in 1936: “Obolensky’s match”. The wing three-quarter scored two tries, the second of them legendary, as England won 13-0.
It was their first victory over the All Blacks and remains their biggest. On the crackling Pathé newsreel, Obolensky shimmers across the field for his first try, his legs up to his backside, his pace stunning you across the decades.
That day he flitted across the rugby landscape and disappeared. Few of the diners in Obolensky’s & Wakefield’s restaurant at Twickenham on Saturday for the England-Wales match will ever have heard of this most exotic of English internationals.
The Obolenskys had been Russian princes since the 14th century. Mussorgsky dedicated a piano piece
to one family member; another, according to Punch magazine, “had 35 peasants whipped to death”; while “Obo’s” grandfather hosted the Tsar and Tsarina for holidays at his country mansion.
Obolensky was born,
with terrible timing, in St Petersburg in 1916. When the revolution came the next year, the family were scheduled to be first against the wall. He later wrote that his parents had had “a miraculous escape”.
In January 1919 they and their toddler son arrived in Britain on the minesweeper Princess Margaret. They had no money, but were expecting to stay only a few weeks anyway, until the revolution ended. They were due a hard exile. Footage from 1921 shows “Obo’s” father and a fellow Russian prince feeding chickens and shovelling hay on a British turnip farm.
Obolensky attended English boarding schools, and in 1935 entered Oxford University. He won a rugby blue, wrote theatre reviews for Isis magazine, and with his blond quiff and exotic title became the most glamorous figure in town.
A typewritten manuscript survives of a pompous essay he wrote while at Oxford called “War is NOT Ignoble”. In 1933 the Oxford Union had passed the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country”. As European war drew nearer, Obolensky disagreed. He wrote that he would fight for Britain, though he praised Hitler and Mussolini as “Europe’s greatest safeguard” against communism and anarchy. He thought it “at least brave of Hitler to have opposed” the influence of the clever Jews.
While at Oxford Obolensky was selected to play for England. This caused a national fuss, because he was not yet a British citizen.
“My dear Bish,” he wrote to a friend in December 1935, “have had a hectic period dealing with press reporters. At first I told them to go to hell, with the result that they made up my life story. I was dubbed as a Pole, a Georgian, etc. & the Obolensky pride revolted”.
He concludes: “Life is grand Bish old boy, for the first time in my life I have fallen in love. She inspires me to score tries & to work.”
In fact most newspapers were kind to him. That winter the blue-eyed Russian became a darling
of the nation, a sort of Jonny Wilkinson with a title thrown in. The News Chronicle called him a “clean-limbed young Englishman” who “looks as little like a Russian prince of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vintage as an English barge looks like a Volga boatman”.
His performance against the All Blacks made even the Russian newspapers. For his second try, he got the ball on the right wing inside his own half and raced diagonally across the field past the entire New Zealand defence.
He won three more caps in 1936 but then got injured, and never played for England again. In 1938 he left Oxford with a fourth-
class degree. His equivalent today would have become a merchant banker, or a gentleman officer keeping the peace in southern Iraq. But the second world war broke out, and “Obo” joined the RAF.
On March 28 1940, he heard he had been recalled to play for England against Wales. The next day, coming into land after 30 minutes of formation flying, he overshot the runway, hit some gorse bushes, over-
turned, broke his neck and died. He was 24.
No one has ever confirmed rumours that on his final flight Obolensky had been doing loop-the-
loops like the playboy he was. He was buried in Ipswich.
I visited the brick semi-detached house where he had lived with his parents in unfashionable Muswell Hill, north London. It must have been a comedown after the Petersburg court. There is
a plaque on the front wall, but it commemorates a Sanskrit scholar and revolutionary who lived there before the Obolenskys.
All that remains of “Obo” now are those few seconds spent galloping across the Twickenham field.
Additional research by Joshua Freedman
Get alerts on UK schools when a new story is published