- England's first win against NZ came in 1936
- A Russian-born man proved England's saviour
Moments before his international debut against New Zealand on 4 January 1936, Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky was looked in the eye by His Royal Highness Prince Edward of Wales and asked: ‘By what rights do you presume to play for England?’
80 minutes later and Obolensky’s actions had answered that question better than any verbal response could have: with two tries, helping England to a 13-0 first-ever win over the southern-hemisphere giants.
Prince Edward’s probe stemmed from Obolensky’s Russian roots; the 19-year-old was born in St Petersburg, and so his inclusion in the national team had sparked controversy, with many deeming him ineligible to wear the Red Rose.
The Obolensky’s were Russian nobility. Alexander’s father, Prince Serge, was an officer in the Tsar’s Imperial Horse Guards and his mother was Princess Lubov Naryshkina. They had fled their home for England during the Bolshevik takeover of 1917 as political refugees - with Prince Alexander who was just one at the time - and started a new life in Muswell Hill, north London.
Alexander grew up playing multiple sports, but his skillset - in particular his speed - aided him best in rugby, where he earned the name ‘The Flying Prince’. He plied his trade in numerous teams including: Trent College, Chesterfield, and Leicester Tigers - where he scored 12 tries in 17 games, but it was at Oxford University where he caught the attention of England selectors.
Satisfied that he was of a good enough standard to grace the international stage, efforts were made to arrange suitable credentials that would enable the second year undergraduate to play for England, and a British passport was issued to him in time for the New Zealand game.
Did you know? Obolensky's passport, and a number of other personal items, can be seen in the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham Stadium's south stand.
England’s greatest try?
His doubters prior to kick off were soon silenced as Obolensky put England in the ascendancy against New Zealand, with both his tries coming in the first half.
The opener started 60 metres out, and was initiated by outside centre Peter Cranmer, who immediately lifted the ball into the path of the onrushing Obolensky. With much to do, the winger weaved through two Kiwi defenders and made an arching run toward the touchline, evading the last man before sliding over and sending the Twickenham crowd into raptures.
“Obolensky’s impressive speed later secured him a place in both the British tour to Argentina and the national side later that year,” explains Phil McGowan, curator of the World Rugby Museum.
“However, it was his second try against New Zealand, widely regarded as one of England’s greatest tries, that has immortalised Obolensky in English rugby history.”
The score came as a result of good support play as Obolensky mirrored the run of his fly half, slowing his pace to receive the ball, and readjusting his own run to cut back inside and sprint diagonally toward the corner flag around four players and over the whitewash to secure the win.
His performance was lauded and won him admiration nationwide, propelling him to stardom in rugby circles. But, unfortunately for the sport, Obolensky would go on to win just three more England caps.
Gone too soon
In 1938 he answered the call of his adopted home by joining the Royal Air Force Auxiliary, and was tragically killed two years later during a flight training exercise at Martlesham Heath Airfield, when his Hawker Hurricane Mark 1 overshot the landing strip.
Obolensky was buried with full service honours at the age of 24 in Ipswich War Cemetery, and a statue providing a lasting tribute to his remarkable life was unveiled in Ipswich in 2009. Although brief, his cameo was one that had a positive impact on the English attitude to sporting inclusiveness and nationhood for many years to come.
The man who questioned Obolensky’s right to play against New Zealand that day was crowned King of England two weeks later, but whilst Edward VIII’s right to rule England was inherited, Obolensky’s right to play rugby for England was earned.With thanks to Phil McGowan, and The World Rugby Museum.