Brian Viner: Visit of the All Blacks evokes memory of Prince Obo and the gallant Gadneys

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The Independent Online

Even in the unlikely event of England's rugby union players registering only their fifth home-soil victory in 101 years against the mighty All Blacks tomorrow, and even should young debutant Anthony Allen seal a rare victory with two wonderful tries, it will probably be more or less forgotten by 2076. Not so England's inaugural victory over New Zealand. Its impact still reverberates 70 years later, not least because of the two spectacular tries scored in a 13-0 win by another Test debutant, the 19-year-old Russian émigré Prince Alexander Obolensky.

Obolensky's name evokes the same sentiment in rugby union circles as that of Duncan Edwards, another wunderkind, does in football circles. Maybe "wunderkind" is an inappropriate word. After all, it was Germany, in a way, that did for them both. Edwards was fatally injured in a plane that failed to take off in Munich in February 1958, and Obolensky died in a Hawker Hurricane, while practising his landings at RAF Martlesham Heath, in March 1940. He was 24. His captain against New Zealand on that famous day at Twickenham, the great 6ft 2in scrum-half B C Gadney, visited the grave on every anniversary of "Obo's" death, depositing the emblem of English rugby, a single red rose. Gadney last stooped with Obolensky's rose just a few weeks before he himself died, at the grand age of 91, six years ago.

On Thursday I phoned Reg Gadney, a highly successful thriller writer, yet just as happy to be known as Bernard's son. For 25 fascinating minutes he gave me more details of his father's long life, and indeed that of his uncle, Cyril Gadney, who was a leading international referee, and was officiating with his trademark rigour at Cardiff Arms Park on the day in 1948 that news came through of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

At half-time the Arms Park announcer solemnly told the crowd that Gandhi was dead. There was sporadic cheering. They thought that the ref had keeled over, and were duly confused when he trotted out for the second half. "I'm the only Englishman to have been resurrected at Cardiff Arms Park," Cyril liked to say.

Reg was born in 1941 (his mother, the beautiful Kelly, was heiress to the Lilley & Skinner shoe fortune, and had been pinched by Bernard from her previous boyfriend David Niven) but grew up knowing all about the famous 1936 victory against the All Blacks. Not that his father, the least boastful of men, ever talked much about it. In fact, he was all for throwing his England caps away, until Reg said he would have them. He also has the shirt his father wore that day. Moreover, it still has Bernard's blood on it; he was prone to nosebleeds, and Kelly thought his shirts would make better keepsakes unwashed. "It must be one of the most remarkable pieces of rugby football memorabilia," ventured Reg. Is it framed, on the wall? "No, I keep it in a suitcase."

His dad travelled to Twickenham by train in January 1936, with his good friend "Obo", and they disembarked three stops early. They then ran the last couple of miles to the ground. It was their way of warming up, which might be worth reflecting on as we watch the platoon of coaches and physios putting the players through their paces tomorrow.

They won't have arrived by train, either. Nor did the All Blacks get here by sea. In the summer of 1936, Gadney and Obolensky went on England's tour of Argentina, crossing the Atlantic by boat. "They trained on deck," Reg told me, "but when Obo got the ball he couldn't resist giving it a kick. He kicked all six practice balls into the sea, after which they had to practise with a stuffed pillow case."

In other ways, happily, nothing much has changed. Not long before he died, Bernard was invited to Twickenham for the unveiling of the wall of fame, in which "his" was the first brick. Self-effacing to the last, he was reluctant to go, but Reg persuaded him to pay one last visit to HQ. The Rugby Football Union sent a car to pick him up from his home in Suffolk. And at Twickenham the old man was introduced to Jonny Wilkinson. "He really took to Wilkinson in a big way," Reg recalled. "Both men of few words, you see. In his later years dad used to sit alone in absolute silence, watching internationals. Anyway, Wilkinson knew that dad had been a brilliant drop-kicker, and asked him about his technique.

"'I don't know about you,' dad said, 'but I always used the 1-2-3-4 technique'.

"'What's that?' said Wilkinson.

"'One, you get the ball", dad said. 'Two, you look. Three, you drop. Four, you kick. If you do it slowly, the way I did it, you will never miss'. And when you watch Wilkinson's drop-kick in the last minute of the [2003] World Cup final, which I consider to be the greatest kick ever, you'll see that's exactly what he did. 1-2-3-4. I wish dad had lived just a little longer. He would have loved to see that."

Who I Like This Week...

The ITV pundit Andy Townsend, who, unlike many ex-players now working in the media, calls it exactly as he sees it. He was first to criticise Jose Mourinho following his tiresome anti-Barcelona outburst after Chelsea's excellent 2-2 draw in the Nou Camp, rightly deeming it inappropriate. After all, for Arjen Robben's manager to moan about opposition players diving gives a bad name to pots who call kettles black. When Mourinho first arrived at Chelsea, I kept a tally of the number of times he was described, in print and over the airwaves, as "a breath of fresh air". Within a month it was somewhere in the high hundreds. Yet it's not something you hear any more. A breath of fetid air is more like it, which is a shame, because as a manager rather than a human being, he deserves masses of credit.

And Who I Don't

Thierry Henry, who in his programme notes for Arsenal's match against CSKA Moscow, criticised Gunners fans for trudging out of the Emirates Stadium before the end of last weekend's game against Everton. The players notice it and it saps their confidence was the gist of his complaint.

Now I must say that there is hardly anything about Thierry Henry that I dislike. He's a genius as a footballer, and a manifestly intelligent and decent man. But there aren't many privileges to being a fan in the Premiership these days.

It costs a fortune, the facilities even in new stadiums are far from luxurious, and getting to and from the match is usually a nightmare. So if fans vote with their feet, or simply want to get out before the crush starts, pampered players have no right to stop them.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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