For a bit of relief from the awful news that we have been hearing, I have something a bit lighter to write about. The Saturday before last, I put on my special pullover and settled in front of the television to watch the rugby match between England and Scotland, broadcast from Twickenham. My pullover doesn't have magical powers that guarantee a Scottish victory, but it expresses optimism – it is embroidered with a celebratory motif commemorating the Scottish Grand Slam victory over the other four competing nations in 1990.
Why special? Because I went with my two sons to the final match that year fully expecting Scotland to lose to England and, when we returned home, we found that my wife, innocently believing that Scotland would win, had the previous day bought three pullovers to celebrate a victory. That was 1990, and you may know that Scotland has not matched that performance since. Now it is even more difficult, as six nations compete for the championship.
Few of you, I suspect, will know the name Obolensky and I admit that it has been stored somewhere below conscious level in my brain for decades, but on that Saturday it came back to me. My teacher in primary school in Yorkshire just after the war had a knack of making his English and Latin lessons memorable. He had just introduced rugby to the school and by way of illustrating good written English, he read to us a journalist's account in The Times
of Obolensky's try, scored back in 1936. Please forgive me if you are not an enthusiast for the game, but the description captured the drama of the event so well that it has stayed in my mind for over seven decades.
Years later, I saw an old blurry newsreel of the actual game. In England, that try, his first of two in the match, had turned the game against the New Zealand All Blacks, whom England had never previously beaten. It became known (by the English) as the greatest individual international try ever.
As I settled down to watch the recent match on television, I was again fully prepared for disappointment. However, it proved to be a thrillingly close contest. In the first half Scotland were on the defensive, but we were hoping for one of those moments, a flash of brilliance to arouse our spirits and shock the opposition. The ball arrived in the hands of Duhan van der Merwe, a huge South African representing Scotland, on the far right-hand side of the field, some 55 yards from the English try line. Without hesitation, rather than giving the ball a kick or taking the short route, he aimed himself along the hypotenuse. At top speed over 60 yards and with the grace of a ballet dancer, he sidestepped two English defenders, leaving both grasping at thin air, and dismissed a third with a hand-off that with his momentum must have felt like being hit by Mohammed Ali, before crashing over the line, a fourth English player haplessly trying to embrace him.
Almost exactly, he had replicated Obolensky's try. Scotland took the lead and later, in the final minutes of a game in which the lead had repeatedly changed hands, he was to follow Obolensky further by adding a second personal try to ensure victory.
Prince Alexander Obolensky was a Russian aristocrat who fled St Peterburg in the 1917 revolution and became a naturalised British citizen. He was educated at Oxford and spent most of his time playing rugby for English clubs, England and the British Lions. He last played for England in a wartime international in 1940. By then he had enlisted in the RAF and that year, aged 24, training on a Hurricane, he crashed while manoeuvring on the ground, was thrown out of the cockpit, and fatally broke his neck. His fame was such that a statue was erected to him in Ipswich, close to the scene of his death. However, at the time of his try there had been some protests about a foreigner playing for England in what was to be for may years a purely amateur game.
When rugby was invented, in the mid-19th century, grounding the ball behind the opposition line added no points to the score. It simply entitled that side to have a kick at goal for one point, a goal. This grounding of the ball was named a try apparently because it allowed that side to try to score a goal. The ensuing kick was an attempt to convert the try into a goal, and the successful combination was initially rewarded with one point.
The two terms persist in the modern game but a try has for long been rewarded with points, now five, and the conversion adds two more. Neither word carries its original meaning, a try really being a success and a conversion an addition of points. The French, who came later to rugby, missed an opportunity to change the terms to more meaningful ones, simply translating a try to un essai
and a conversion to une transformation
Over the years, the value of a try has increased in order to encourage more emphasis on running and passing the ball rather than just kicking for penalties, for which three points are awarded. The amateur game has become professional at the top level. Higher skill levels, more scientific training, and the increasing size and weight of the players has led to an increasing level of excitement for spectators, and to the sort of games we have seen over the last two weekends.
There is now a market-place for the best players and it is no longer surprising to see players from the old British and French empires, to which rugby spread, in the teams of what we refer to as the home nations. Scotland's team has certainly benefited from several robust South African and other immigrants. So far as I know, however, no more Russians have made their mark in the game in the British Isles since Obolensky.
Despite the persistence of antique terms, the game has been revolutionised and there is a darker side to this. Money problems have led to financial collapse of some of England's oldest and most respected rugby clubs but, more importantly, the risk of serious injury to players has increased. The velocity and speed of a moving body multiply to give its momentum and thus the power transferred on impact. With both heavier and faster players, collisions have become more dangerous. Most notably head and neck injuries may be fatal but the risks of long-term consequences from frequent smaller head injuries, including dementia, motor neurone and Parkinson's diseases are being recognised.
There are obvious areas of the game where reform of the laws is necessary, most notably to protect the head from injury. The excitement we spectators feel comes at an unacceptable price and this is now recognised and action is being taken to reduce risks. But more needs to be done.
I avoided submitting this piece until the following weekend, as I feared that by then Scotland's team would have lost their next match, but happily (and unusually) that game ended in a resounding victory. Scotland seems to have discovered again how to score tries consistently. It's too early to speculate but we can hope. I'd like a new pullover.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own