Russian Prince-in-Exile Put Rugby in Limelight

Just over 61 years ago, cameras whirred as a teenage English right wing etched his name and flashing figure large in rugby union history with one outrageous run from deep in the New Zealand half.


Cinemagoers saw England defeat, for the first time, the all-powerful New Zealand with what some call the greatest try in rugby history -- run in by a teenage Russian prince from St. Petersburg.


"Obo," or Prince Alexander Obolensky, was born a year before the October revolution. Shipped off for safety's sake to England by his father, Prince Alexis, it was while he was studying and playing for Oxford University that he was picked to play for England.


While millions will watch England play Wales tomorrow, rugby union then was a sport followed by few according to award-winning sports journalist Frank Keating.


But the sight of Obo's sparkling try was "in marketing and publicity terms ... arguably rugby union's most fundamental breakthrough," wrote Keating in The Guardian.


"We've seen many more dramatic tries since," Keating said in a recent telephone interview, "It just took the fancy of everyone with this being a Russian prince. It tickled the fancy of people around the world who still see it as the greatest [try], but that's based on the romance more than the fact."


Sixty years ago and exactly one year after Obo's debut, England's opponent, like tomorrow's, was Wales. But the unthinkable happened: Obo was dropped after having failed to score in his last three matches.


"Prince Deposed," roared the Daily Express as the whole nation rumbled at the loss of the man who was rugby.


"A disappointed nation raised an eyebrow whether they knew or not the difference between a cornerflag or a forward pass," wrote Keating. "For the dashing Obo remained the only rugby player they had heard of."


Although Obo never played for England again, he had one remarkable rugby feat left. He scored a remarkable 17 tries against Brazil XV on a Rugby Football Union tour. It's a record that still stands today.


In 1939 Obolensky joined the RAF, and began training to become a pilot. On March 29, 1940, at the age of 24, he was killed after crashing his Hawker Hurricane while attempting to land.


"His legend increased when he died so young," Keating said.


He is still vividly and fondly remembered as, according to one contemporary quoted in the Guardian, "a carefree White Russian ... who'd train on champagne and a dozen oysters." Word has it that some of his fellow rugby players still gather on the anniversary of his death to lay flowers on his grave and meet for lunch in Norfolk where he died.