The Rugby History Society


Options
  Home
Return to Articles



 

 

Alexander Obolensky



Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky was born in St Petersburg on February 17th 1916. His parents, Prince Sergei, a Captain in the Imperial Horse Guards, and Princess Luba were very much part of the doomed Russian aristocracy. As revolution took hold in Russia and the communist forces advanced the family was forced to flee their native Russia in 1919 to avoid the fate that awaited other members of the Imperial family, eventually seeking asylum in England they settled in Muswell Hill, London .

In 1929 at the age of thirteen Obolensky was sent to boarding at school at Trent College in Derbyshire. It was here that the young Obolensky had his first taste of rugby soon showing his aptitude for the game by being selected in 1932 for the school first fifteen at the age of sixteen, helping them to an unbeaten run scoring 539 points whilst conceding only 22 and during the course of one famous season scoring forty nine tries. From Trent College Obolensky progressed to Brasenose College , Oxford , reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Whilst his academic application may have been called into doubt, he eventually took a fourth, his growing prowess on the rugby field could not be questioned. Awarded his first Blue for Oxford in 1935, his freshman year, he made a try saving tackle during a match that ended in a scoreless draw. A second Blue followed in 1937, with the Varsity Match of 1936 being missed due to injury. This aside the 1936 season proved to be remarkable for the young Prince.

Obolensky’s selection for England to play New Zealand on January 2nd 1936 caused great controversy within the game of rugby union. At the time Obolensky was, at least officially, still a Russian. His selection was dependent upon his assurance that he would become a British Citizen, a process that he had already begun and was completed a few weeks after the match. During the pre match introductions the Prince of Wales, who would later briefly become King Edward VIII, asked Obolensky ‘By what right do you play for England ?’ Obolensky replied ‘I attend Oxford University …Sir’ and so with the future monarch put firmly in his place he could turn his attention to the not insubstantial hurdle of the New Zealand team.

The Match, and Obolensy’s part in it, has passed into the folklore of English Rugby. England had never before defeated New Zealand , and were frankly not expected to do so on this occasion. After the spectacle was over the Times described it as “a remarkable match, with a still more remarkable result.” Certainly the expectant seventy two thousand crowd received more than they could have dared hope for. Obolensky scored two tries, both in the first half of the match. For his first try he sidestepped Gilbert, the New Zealand fullback, at pace to touch down. His speed and agility should not have come as a surprise to the visitors as he had scored a very similar try for Oxford University against them earlier in the tour. As good as this was it is for his second try that Obolensky is probably best remembered. Taking the ball on his own right wing he cut across the field to touch down just inside the left corner flag, outpacing the entire New Zealand defensive cover in the process. This was a highly unorthodox movement for the time and caught New Zealand unawares. For whatever reason they could find no way to counter England and the thirteen to nil final score line brought with it England ’s first victory against the All Blacks. It would also be their last until 1973.

Obolensky’s fame, which has endured time far better than many of his contemporaries who attained far more international recognition, rests in no small part on this match. The fact that it was widely covered by newsreel footage and is still often shown today may well have contributed to this. Other factors such as his unusual lineage and unorthodox play no doubt also played their part. Seen as a romantic figure many women were found amongst his fans, and he was often seen as the playboy prince who prepared for a match of rugby with a dozen oysters. On the other, more thoughtful, side whilst still a student he contributed to the book ‘Be Still and Know: Oxford in Search of God’ published in 1936. His enigma may well have contributed to the publics enduring fascination with him.

Obolensky continued to play for England for most of the rest of 1936, winning a further three caps, but failed to better his debut as he rarely saw another pass for the full England side. During a tour of South America that summer with an English representative fifteen he reportedly scored seventeen tries during the 82-0 destruction of the Brazilian side, but even this was not enough to convince the selectors to continue their faith in him and he never played for England again.

After graduating from Oxford in 1937 club rugby now became the focus of Obolensky’s sporting life. In his short career he played seven times for the Barbarians, including perhaps prophetically twice in the Edgar Mobbs Memorial game against the East Midlands, as well as spells at Chesterfield and Leicester . He was best known as a member of Rosslyn Park , whose red and white hoops he wore until the outbreak of war and here at least he remained a favorite of the crowd.

Obolensky had been commissioned into the Royal Air Force Auxiliary in 1938. Again the duality of his nature can be seen in this choice. On the one hand, superficially at least, a wish to be the dashing fighter pilot. On the other a more sober wish to avoid the dire fate of his native Russia befalling his adopted Britain . Whilst at Oxford had voted to ‘fight for King and Country’ when the Student Union had famously voted against the proposition. Whatever had driven his choice to join the Royal Air Force Obolensky was called up to active service in 1939. Britain was at war, but following the fall of Poland the so called phony war was in progress with a lull in the fighting until the German forces attacked the low countries in May 1940. This left little for the young pilots of the Royal Air Force to do but train and fly defensive patrols for the all too obviously approaching storm.  Despite this Obolensky still found time to play rugby, turning out for the joint English and Welsh side that beat their Irish and Scottish counterparts by seventeen points to three at Richmond in December 1939. All proceeds from this match were donated to the Red Cross, as was the case when he later played for an England XV that beat the Welsh by eighteen points to nine at Cardiff in March 1940, scoring one of his by now signature solo tries crossing the pitch to touch down.

Despite the games more pressing matters were afoot and Obolensky was posted to 504 Squadron, newly equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighters. A few days prior to the outbreak of war the squadron was transferred to Digby, using Martlesham Heath as it’s forward base. It was here that Obolensky was killed in his Hurricane L1946 on 29th March 1940, just three days after his promotion to full Pilot Officer was gazetted. Although there were rumors that Obolensky had been engaged in aerobatics at the time of his fatal crash officially he was killed as his hurricane overshot the runway during a training accident. Obolensky had previously admitted that he found landing the hardest part of his flying duties. Alexander Obolensky, also known as ‘Obo’ or ‘The Prince’ and the first former England international to fall in World War Two was buried at Ipswich ’s war cemetery. At the time of his death he was twenty four.

Sources

"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

"A Game for Hooligans", H. Richards, Mainsteam, 2006

The Times Online Digital Archive

Wikepedia

www.oxforddnb.com

www.youandyesterday.co.uk

© D A Hunter, 2007
For Permission to reproduce this article please CLICK HERE