A hundred years of 'HQ'
James Lawton on the centenary of England at Twickenham
Saturday 06 February 2010
It is not quite a story of cabbages and kings, at least not if you deny that status to such quintessential English heroes as Jonny Wilkinson and Richard Sharp, but when the corporate and nationalistic hoopla of Twickenham's 100th anniversary reaches a potentially dismaying peak today there is surely the strongest obligation to remember a Russian prince.
This is despite the fine historical symmetry in the appearance of Wales, England's first opponents at the now hallowed bastion after it was converted from a market garden patch which cost the Rugby Football Union 5,572 pounds, 12 shillings and sixpence.
However, the Welsh also bring a charge against the meaning and the ambience of what is now one of the high altars of world sport, an 82,000-capacity stadium geared for maximum exploitation of market forces.
They say that for all its modern splendour Twickenham has a deficit in soul and sporting atmosphere. The fierce front-rower Graham Price recalled that his first appearance there more than 40 years ago was largely anti-climactic. "I was used to the atmosphere in Cardiff and Paris, which made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up but I found it a bit flat at Twickenham."
Former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas says, "When you go there you are struck by the Englishness of the whole place. It's true what they say. There are Range Rovers and people eating from picnic hampers and for a few moments you realise that the game in England was for so long the preserve of the upper classes."
However in all today's ceremonies, including Prince Harry of England's ascension as a vice-patron of the Rugby Football Union, there can be no Welsh denial that this is a place that has known emotion and romance to compete with any arena in sport – and for this there is an imperishable debt to that Russian prince.
Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky (pictured) retreated with his family from St Petersburg after the revolution. He died in an RAF Hurricane in 1940 – four years after sowing legend in the old cabbage patch.
He scored two tries on his England debut – the nation's first defeat of the All Blacks. The try of all Twickenham tries – his first – is enshrined in grainy Pathé News. He left the New Zealanders trailing as he ran for three-quarters of the length of the field. He played just three more times for England and failed to score another try, though he heard he had been selected to rejoin the England team, to play Wales, the day before his fatal crash.
It took Wales 10 attempts to win at Twickenham and if there was any excuse in their belief that the English fortress was a little too antiseptic, a little too remote from the normal thrust of their competitive atmosphere, it is one that will certainly be denied them today. The sound of "Jerusalem" will sweep across the avenues and cul-de-sacs of south-west London. The cross of St George will be huge. And a prince of England will be saluted.
Heavy ceremony, indeed, but what no-one can say, not even the Welsh, is that it comes in a place which has never felt the purest of sporting elation. The dash of the son of a Russian cavalry officer made such a claim impossible so long ago.
Images taken from ‘Twickenham – 100 Years of Rugby’s HQ’ (£30, Vision Sports Publishing)
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