The Lions and South Africa: Part 2

(IRB.COM) Thursday 14 May 2009
By Chris Thau

 The Lions and South Africa: Part 2
The power of four: The famous British and Irish Lions crest

In the run-up to the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa, Chris Thau continues to investigate the historical roots of the Lions, and the strong connection of the combined home nations side with South Africa. In part two of his history, he recounts the tour of 1891 and the role played by both captains in their teams' rugby evolution.

Of the two 19th century test series described by some historians as the ‘educational era’ of South African rugby, the 1891 tour may be regarded as the primary stage of the process, when the raw and eager South Africans were taught the finer points of the ‘scientific game’ as played in the mother country.

The second venture, five years later in 1896, would be much more akin to a secondary school education - many of the lessons from 1891 had been digested and acted upon by the South Africans - and in the fourth test they won for the first time ever. The graduation exam. South Africa arrived.

It was another 12 years before ultimate success came. SW Black optimistically asserted before the tour of 1891 that “the metal was to be placed in the crucible, the gold to be separated from the dross” but in reality the ‘metal’ of 1891 was only turned into ‘gold’ by 1903, when South Africa narrowly won a maiden test series victory. In 1891 the ‘metal’ was still in the furnace, by the end of 1896 it was getting forged and shaped into a formidable fighting machine.


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Having left Southampton aboard the Dunottar Castle of Castle Line on 20 June 1891, William ‘Bill’ Maclagan and his team - less AA Surtees who arrived later - reached Cape Town in a record 16 days to be greeted with ‘unlimited hospitality’ by the locals.

Three days after their arrival on 9 June the visitors took on the combined Cape Clubs in a historic first international encounter in Africa, in which they demonstrated their superior skill and pace against a reasonably strong side including the captain of Western Province Benjamin Duff and three of the Versfeld brothers, one of whom - C ‘Hastie’ Versfeld - scored the first and only South African try against the visitors throughout the 19-match tour.

England centre Randolph L Aston, whose size, power and speed bewildered the locals, scored two tries, Scotland wing Paul R Clauss added two more A Rotherham scored the fifth. Two days later Western Province put up stiffer resistance, Herbert H Castens leading the forwards as they lost by two tries 6-0, the only match of the tour in which the tourists’ captain Maclagan failed to play. Maclagan returned for the third match against the Cape Colony on 13 June with Castens again leading the local forward effort, amongst them his younger brother Emile. Maclagan scored his first try of the tour but the show was stolen by Aston and Clauss with two tries each.
From Cape Town the visitors left for Griqualand West for two matches, reaching Kimberley exhausted after a long journey by horse-driven coach, and train. With their enthusiasm and sense of adventure intact, they encountered strong opposition but won both matches 7-0 and 3-0 against Kimberley and Griqualand West with Clauss, Aston and Maclagan among the scorers.

The state of the pitch is described in the notes of PR Clauss: "…we stepped into the arena with no little anxiety, as for the first time in our lives, we were going to play on a ground absolutely destitute of grass, hard and covered with reddish dust; so that, with a bright sun overhead, there was a considerable glare. Frequently, too, one lost sight of the ball in the pillars of dust that rose up in the wake of the players as they run." However, Maclagan reckoned that it was there in Kimberley that the visitors were given the stiffest contest, so Griqualand West were offered the gold cup donated by Sir Donald Currie at the end of the tour.

From the red dust of Kimberley, Maclagan took his men to the lush green lawns of Port Elizabeth for the next three matches, including the first ever test match played by the newly born rugby nation South Africa. The match also marked the return to international action of the former Scottish captain after his retirement the previous season.

Twenty-seven-year old Villagers FC skipper Herbert H Castens was appointed as the first ever captain of South Africa, though for reasons unknown he was not selected for the remaining two tests.

The two captains in 1891: Maclagan (left) in his Scotland jerse,y and Castens in civilian clothes before the touring party arrived

It is difficult to say whether this was down to loss of form or the selection system, in which each provincial Union hosting an international would select the team. Perhaps he had simply opted out, having chosen to referee the final test and the 20th match of the tour against Stellenbosch University.

One train of thought – perhaps born out of gossip – chooses to ally his initial selection with his father Emilius Castens’ significant influence in Eastern Province rugby. However, history should note that Castens played a significant role in the rapid early evolution of the South African game.

Maclagan vs Castens

Infact, a parallel between the playing careers of the two captains in that first test is both edifying and instructive. Similar to Maclagan, who went to Scotland’s leading rugby nursery Edinburgh Academy, Castens, six years younger, attended England’s leading establishment the Rugby School in Warwickshire. Both played cricket and rugby for their schools and both captained their school teams, Maclagan in 1874-75, Castens in 1882-83. While Maclagan made his international debut in 1878 as the second sole full back in Scottish history - the game changed from 20-aside to 15-a-side during those years - Castens always played as a forward in the 15s game for school, university, club and country. He also captained the Rugby school cricket team, and South Africa on their maiden tour overseas a few years later.

Maclagan played in the first ever Calcutta Cup match against England in 1879, when ‘him and Ninian Finlay stood between Scotland and defeat at Raeburn Place.’ Maclagan was described as ‘one of the most powerful men behind the scrummage to have played for Scotland’, a ferocious tackler ‘whose defence was not only sound, it was formidable’ and ‘a great master of the game’. He captained his country in six of his 26 internationals and played a hugely influential role in captaining and developing London Scottish into one of the most formidable sides in London at the end of the 19th century.
Castens’ contribution as captain to Rugby School’s demolition of Cambridge University in 1883 was described in the Rugby School magazine as ‘splendid throughout, as he tackled like a devil, scored tries, kicked at goal and led the forward rushes'. That year he went to Brasenose College at Oxford and won his Blue in the 1886 Varsity match against Cambridge. He played again for University in 1887, which earned him an invitation to play for Middlesex County. He must have impressed the England selectors to such an extent that he was selected to play for the South of England against the North, a match organised to replace the missing fixtures against the three Celtic Unions, who were boycotting England at the time. Although caps were seemingly awarded for the match, he did not achieve the extraordinary feat of becoming a double international.

The younger Maclagan (left) while at Edinburgh Academy in 1874, and Castens in his last year at Rugby School in 1883

On his return to South Africa, where he joined the colonial administration as a Law graduate, he commenced playing for the Villagers club. There, in the good tradition of the Old Rugbeians, he became an inspiring and well-respected coach. Several years later, after his death, his former teammate and SA skipper Barry Heatlie recalled that ‘we had the advantage of a great coach, the late HH Castens, not long from Oxford University. Especially in regard to the forward play was it due to his tuition that we more than held the visiting pack.’

Similarly CG van Rennen pointed out that it was due to the coaching of HH Castens and Alf Richards that the playing standards of the Villagers Club, the Western Province and ultimately South Africa improved during the late 1880s and early 1890s. ‘The solid foundation of our Rugby football was laid by Castens and Richards and subsequent development was largely due to their efforts’.
At the end of his tour account a visionary Clauss asked rhetorically: ‘Had the tour been a success? Judging by the scoreboard, yes. But the measure of our success was not the number of matches won, of points scored; it went further than that. Had we showed them in South Africa how to play the game in true sporting spirit? Have we taught them that self must be subordinated to side, that science and combination are better than brute strength? Time will show.’

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