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For South Africa Captain of Rugby Captain of Cricket

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Herbert Hayton Castens, who in the fashion of his day, followed the popular trend of adopting initials as a nickname, and was known throughout the South African sporting world as ‘H.H.’ A lesser known, but far less complimentary nickname was that of - Fatty. Castens played an important part in the development of rugby and cricket in this country both on and off the sports field and holds an unique sporting record which is not ever likely ever to be broken.

Herbert Hayton Castens captained this country at rugby in the first ever test match which was played in July 1891 at Port Elizabeth against Bill Maclagan’s touring British Isles team. The result was a win for the visitors by four points to nil with the tourists scoring two tries, which were worth one point each, and successfully converting one, to add the extra two points. The unique record that Castens holds, is that in the third and final test of this series which was played at Newlands in Cape Town, he was the referee and so became the only man in the history of International rugby to have played in, and refereed a test, in the same series.

In addition to his skills with the whistle Castens is also acknowledged as being one of the first, if not the first, South African coach active in our rugby. He strongly believed that rugby was a game of science which had to be studied carefully. He also saw early on in his career the importance of a strong pack of forwards and this became his speciality. Castens developed a systematic method of coaching which he introduced at club level in Cape Town, which gradually permeated through the whole of the Western Province and then subsequently throughout the length and breadth of South Africa.

He was described by the leading players of the day as being - the best coach ever. Barry Heatlie who played for South Africa over a period of twelve years from 1891 and who was to captain his country in two tests said of Castens that he was a wonderful coach. His major coaching feat was to convince the South African side that all fifteen players in the team were capable of scoring a try and that all were equally important in the overall game plan, not just one or two heroes. At that stage, in our rugby development, the players had been carried away by the powress of one or two individuals rather than the value of a team effort.

On the cricket field, where he was a fine wicket keeper, but a nervous starter when batting, Castens claim to fame is that in 1894 he captained the first South African cricket team on a tour overseas, which was to the United Kingdom. Whilst the touring team were not awarded Test Match status, they did gain a historic victory at Lords, the home of cricket, when they beat a strong M. C. C. side, which was captained by the legendary W. G. Grace, by just eleven runs.

Castens was born in 1864 in the small Eastern Cape village of Pearston, which lies some 80kms South East of Graaff - Reinet, where his father owned the local trading store. He was educated overseas at Rugby school and then proceeded on to Oxford University where he obtained his rugby ‘blue’ against Cambridge playing in both 1886 and 1887, becoming one of the first South Africans to achieve this honour. At Oxford he did not achieve the same level of success with his cricket career being unable to command a regular place in the first eleven.

At university he read Law and when he qualified, he returned to this country setting up a legal practice first in Cape Town and then, later on, in what was to become Southern Rhodesia. Whilst living and working in Cape Town he linked up on the rugby field with the Villagers club. His involvement was not only as first team captain, but also as club coach, provincial and test referee and an executive member of the Western Province Rugby Football Union. It was during this period of his life that the first British Isles touring side visited this country. In today’s professional sporting world it is difficult to visualise the role that Hubert Castens played during their visit, in that he refereed the first match of the tour and then played in the next two, both as captain. The tourists then left the Western Cape and moved up to Kimberley where two matches were played without the involvement of Castens. When the tourists moved on to their next venue, Port Elizabeth, where they played three matches in the space of six days he reappeared. He was in charge of the whistle for the first two games, in which his brother was a prominent member of the local sides, and then played and captained the side in the third match, which was the first Test Match ever played by South Africa. Again, from today’s perspective, it is interesting to reflect on the level of importance that was attached to Test matches in those days, in that the match was played on a Thursday afternoon. The following Saturday, having been reserved for the tourists match in Grahamstown, against a local Districts side.

Contemporary press reports on the Test match, state that Castens was often prominent in the exchanges with grand rushes in a game fought out mainly by the two forward packs. An interesting aspect of the Test match press report is the description of the scene at half-time when to quote ‘the two teams received instructions from well known backers of either side and the players enjoyed lemons and sundry’. We are left to contemplate whether betting was allowed at the ground and whether ‘sundry’ could have perhaps meant something more stronger than water?.

Castens was back in action with the whistle later on in the tour handling the visitors second game against the combined Cape Colony side as well as the final Test in Cape Town. The match rules which were in force in those days in respect of controlling a game, also make for interesting reading, in that, allowance was made for two umpires, two touch judges, and a referee. Of the nineteen matches played by the tourists, Castens blew the whistle in five of them. Percy Ross Frame, who was then the President of the South African Rugby Board controlled another four and Jack Heyneman, who was to later also to become President of the S. A. Rugby Board, handled two games. In addition, Mr D. S. Potgieter, who travelled with the tourists as their South African Manager, was in charge of the whistle for one game. It is much to the credit of all these gentlemen that there were no complaints about the standard of refereeing by the visitors. Perhaps they did not play the crucial role that today’s game demands or perhaps the answer may lie in the fact that the British team were unbeaten on tour. They scored eighty nine tries an amassed a total of 224 points in all matches. Against them, the local teams managed one point, a try scored in the first match of the tour by Hasie Versfeld of Hamilton’s who was in the back line for the combined Cape town club side skippered by Castens. Hasie, was one of four brothers who all played for Western Province, with Hasie and his brother Martinus also being members of the South African test sides against the visitors. The other two brothers John and R. L. O. Versfeld had represented Western Province a few years earlier, but R. L. O., did in fact play against the tourists for Transvaal Country Districts in Johannesburg, and it his name that has lived on in South African rugby history, for he was more popularly known as Loftus Versfeld, giving his name to the headquarters of Northern Transvaal rugby.

Moving on now, to Castens cricket career, and in particular to the 1894 tour of the United Kingdom, it is apparent that he did not enjoy the same success, both as a player and captain of the side, as that which he achieved on the rugby field. The tour was not without its problems which started with the selection of the team. Suprisingly the selectors met and finalised the composition of the side at the little town of De Aar in the Karoo. They decided on a young side, whose average age was just over twenty five years with only two players being over the age of thirty, Castens being one of them. The omission of two players from the team caused a controversy, the first, J. H. Sinclair, later to become one of the giants of the South African cricket as well as a Springbok rugby player, was omitted on account of his age, being barely eighteen at the time, and it was perceived that he lacked the necessary experience. The second player omitted, was A. Hendricks, a young Cape Malay; this caused the most upheaval, both locally and overseas. With hindsight, had the decision been reversed, the road cricket, and sport generally travelled this century in South Africa might have been quite different. Hendricks had played in the final match in Cape Town against the second visiting English touring team in the 1891/92 season and his bowling performance of four wickets for fifty runs in twenty five overs had impressed the English professionals. This performance confirmed the solid reputation that he had made in his previous fixtures against local sides. It being reputed that he was by far the fastest bowler in the country at the time. Media coverage of his exclusion differs; the overseas press claiming that he had, in fact, been selected but was withdrawn following pressure from the highest authorities in the government of the Cape Colony. The local press claimed that the selectors felt that his inclusion in the side would have been impolitic. A. W. Seccull, who was a member of the touring party, commented in the articles that he wrote on the tour that Hendricks non-appearance caused some disappointment in England amongst certain sections of the cricketing public.

In England the summer of 1894 was unfortunately very wet, and the South African side battled to adapt to the difficult playing conditions. The consequent, poor playing start to the tour resulted in a lack of publicity and poor crowd attendance at matches which caused a substantial financial loss. At one stage, the team was stranded penniless in Ireland, leaving the Manager, and Castens as captain, to find their way to London at their own cost to arrange funds to enable the tour to continue. Fortunately, supporters came to Castens rescue and the tourists were able to complete their fixture list. The close relationship which existed between rugby and cricket at that stage of our sporting history is illustrated by the fact that the Tour manager was W. V. Simpkins who was also at the time President of the South African Rugby Board.

The English press of the day reported that it was an unhappy tour with ‘H.H.’ being unable to handle the demands of the media and that he did not, as captain go out of his way on arrival in England, to be diplomatic in his handling of certain members of the press. His own form was disappointing totalling only two hundred and thirty five runs in twenty six visits to the wicket at a batting average of 9.79. The published report however, by A. W. Seccull, who as mentioned earlier was on the tour, records that it was a very enjoyable one and that their pioneering efforts did much to raise the standard of the South African game.

Not much is known of Hubert Castens private life. When he retired from active sport he turned to the administrative side of cricket and he was involved in the purchase of ground at Newlands which, to this day, is still the venue of all major cricket matches in Cape Town. He married the sister of E. M. Little, who had played with him in the first rugby test side at Port Elizabeth. His brother, Emile, who remained in the Eastern Cape nearly all his life was instrumental in the formation of the Eastern Province Rugby Union as well as presenting the new union with the Grand Challenge trophy for competition between the local club sides. The brothers played for the combined Cape Colony side against the English tourists, being the second of brothers to do so, the Versfelds, being the first.

Later in life ‘H.H.’ moved north to Southern Rhodesia, and practised as an advocate, before like so many other legal men turning to politics, being elected to the National Legislative and later becoming secretary to the Government. Having earned a unique sporting double of being national captain in both rugby and cricket, as well as playing a prominent role in the development of both games in this country Hubert Hayton Castens managed to live much of his remaining years out of the public spotlight. After his death in 1929 in London at the age of sixty two, a tribute was paid to him in a letter by a friend which was published in the ‘Cape Times’ and which described Castens as a ‘curious but loveable character’.


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