Exiled Russian prince, fighter pilot, and a rugby international who once scored 17 tries in a single match. Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky should be forever remembered as the man who, on his debut for the national colours, helped England achieve their first ever win over the might of the dominant All Blacks.
The two incredible tries from ‘The Prince’, or ‘Obo’ as he was known, at Twickenham Stadium on 4 January 1936 are a special thread in the tapestry of 20th Century rugby in England, the mythology of this particular character augmented by it being the nation’s last win over New Zealand for 37 years.
Sunday 29 March 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of Obo’s tragic death.
The son of Prince Sergei Alexandrovich Obolensky, a captain of the Imperial Royal Horse Guard, and Princess Luba, Alexander was born in St. Petersburg just a year before the abolition of the Russian monarchy triggered by the Revolutions in 1917.
The family fled to England to escape the communist forces and to avoid the fate of the last Tsar, Nicholas II and the Russian royal family, eventually residing in Muswell Hill in north London, close to Alexandra Park. Alexander attended boarding school and Trent College in Derbyshire from the age of 13 in 1929, where his interest in rugby fermented (at the latter he scored 222 points in two years). His reputation as an exceptional sprinter burgeoned too.
Later studying philosophy, politics and economics at Brasenose College, Oxford, Obo’s athleticism far exceeded his academic prowess, and he was awarded two ‘Blues’ in the space of three years. The Blue, the historic institution states, ‘is the highest honour granted to individual sportspeople at the University of Oxford and is a highly sought-after achievement for Oxford student athletes.’
It wasn’t a bad string to the bow for the sybarite prince, who reportedly prepared for matches by guzzling a dozen oysters, would regularly down champagne, and had a gaggle of girls always in attendance to watch him play.
But then, just after New Year 1936, Obo took his chance to wade into rugby history.
Obo was still officially a Russian citizen when he was selected to play for England against New Zealand, with opponents who, as one commentator said, ‘had been thought to be unbeatable’.
The decision to play the Russian prince puzzled the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, who consequently asked Obolensky, “by what right do you play for England?”“I attend Oxford University, sir.” replied the then-19 year-old Obolensky.
His presence on the pitch directly contributed to England’s first ever win over New Zealand. Obolensky scored two tries, both in the first half of the match. The second, recorded by a British Movietone news camera in the West Stand, is still seen as one of the best tries English rugby has ever witnessed.
For the first, supplied by outside centre Peter Cranmer, Obolensky bypassed a pair of New Zealand defenders to run towards the touchline. One more evasion, a slide, and the 70,000-strong Twickenham crowd exploded. There was more, and better, to come.
Before the interval, Obolensky collected from his fly half and, having slowed to mimic, that famed speed kicked into gear. To confuse the onrushing Kiwis, he readjusted his run to switch to left to right, before cutting back inside and sprinting diagonally toward the left corner flag to leave four of the bamboozled All Blacks in his wake. England won the match 13-0 and Prince Obo was rugby royalty.
It would, however, mark the first of only four international caps for the Russian prince but during a tour of South America that summer with an English representative XV he reportedly scored 17 tries during an 82-0 destruction of the Brazilian side.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Obolensky was called up to active service in 1939 and served with the Royal Air Force. Less than a year later Obolensky was killed piloting his Hawker Hurricane aeroplane on 29 March 1940 during a training accident.
Just three days after his promotion to full Pilot Officer, and a single day after he had been recalled to the England squad to play Wales, Obo had a failed landing of his plane and broke his neck, becoming the first of 111 former England rugby internationals to die in World War Two. At the time of his death he was just 24 years old.
Alexander Obolensky was buried at Ipswich ’s war cemetery, and there was a statue of him unveiled in 2009 in the town’s Cromwell Square. A restaurant in the East Stand at Twickenham Stadium was previously named in his honour.
English rugby has crowned many kings of the sport in its long spell in the nation’s hearts but Obolensky’s story is one too rarely told. Eighty years on since his tragic passing, we should all take the time to hail The Prince.