LEVI Casboult was a keen Carlton fan long before he joined the Blues, but he was unaware that he had a family connection to the club.
During Carlton’s demolition of Essendon last Saturday the TV commentators came up with a statistical quirk. The half-time margin of 52 points equalled the record for the biggest mid-game lead Carlton has ever had over Essendon; the previous instance had been back in 1913, they added.
But there is an intriguing link between these two victorious Carlton sides a century apart. Among the Blues’ best last Saturday was emerging forward Casboult, and he has a family connection with an ill-fated former star who was prominent when Carlton defeated Essendon in 1913.
Casboult was unaware of the connection, although he has been a fan of the Blues from an early age, and was ecstatic when Carlton selected him as a rookie.
The former star was George Challis, a brilliant and popular wing/half-forward who had four splendid seasons with the Blues before he was killed at the Western Front in 1916. When The Australasian football columnist appraised Carlton’s victory over Essendon in June 1913, he observed that Challis had “passed cleverly and accurately, doing good work all day”.
The columnist was a well-credentialled analyst – he was none other than the then Essendon coach, Jack Worrall. He knew both teams well. Having coached Carlton to three consecutive premierships from 1906, he found himself embroiled in bitter internal strife at the club, and resigned. Snapped up by Essendon, he proceeded to coach the Dons to successive flags in 1911-12.
Worrall’s success at his new club reinforced the sadness and sourness associated with his departure from Carlton. Matches between these rivals took on an extra edge. A notorious clash in 1914 was especially violent.
Victory against the Dons became a priority for Carlton fans. “If we don’t win the flag we’re satisfied with beating Essendon,” an ardent Blues partisan told a reporter on July 13, 1912, which became a special Saturday for Challis, and his admirers.
Having started slowly in 1912, his first season with the Blues, Challis gradually found his form. The pace, grace and superb disposal that had attracted Carlton recruiters became increasingly evident. The culmination was his stunning virtuoso display in the victory over Essendon on July 13.
According to the 1912 Football Record, Carlton’s vociferous barrackers articulated their advocacy “in a voice like that of the man who has swallowed the claw of his crayfish in the boozers’ express at midnight”. Their boisterous intensity when Challis dazzled Essendon on that memorable afternoon was “extraordinary”, an eye-witness declared.
“Carlton simply wiped the floor with Essendon,” wrote Worrall, the vanquished coach. “Challis was the best performer on the ground, excelling in every department, the ease and grace of his movements exciting universal admiration. He was the fastest man on the ground, and his beautiful, accurate passing while going at his top was marvellous.”
Later that year, though, Essendon defeated Carlton in a thrilling final by four points – Worrall described it decades later as his most unforgettable final of all – and the Dons went on to win the premiership. Challis had announced himself spectacularly in the VFL, but he and his teammates had fallen short when it mattered most.
In 1913 Challis confirmed his ability, but the Blues missed the finals for the first time in more than a decade. In 1914 he had a fine year again, but ill-fortune struck at the worst possible time – he was out injured when his teammates won the grand final.
In 1915 it all came together for Challis. He capped off a superb season with a starring role in another Carlton premiership. If the Norm Smith Medal had been awarded back then, he might well have received it.
Identifying equivalents of Challis a century later is difficult because the game has changed so substantially. Challis stood out because of his exceptional pace, skill and disposal. He was, it seems, similar in style to Adam Cooney or Brent Harvey (though not as small as Harvey).
Another comparison concerns an earlier decade. Challis at his best could be likened to the dash and flair of a Western Australian who was awarded the Norm Smith in 1992 – Challis was perhaps the Peter Matera of his era.
What Challis did on the field ensured that he became popular. But the way he did it was also significant. He had an attractive personality and approach. His sunny nature was evident – during matches he was often seen smiling. Challis wanted to compete and succeed, but spectators could tell that he enjoyed himself doing it. Football reporters referred to him as “genial George” and “Cheerful Challis”.
The 1915 grand final was his last VFL match. He was 24 and in his prime, but he left Australia aboard a troop ship soon afterwards. Sergeant Challis ended up in the 58th Battalion. After months of training in Egypt, he was conveyed to France with his unit in June 1916.
Challis went forward with his battalion to the front line near the village of Fromelles during the night of July 10-11. It was supposed to be a quiet sector, but the Australians found themselves thrown into round-the-clock preparations for an imminent assault towards the trenches opposite (which was carried out, disastrously, on July 19).
The Germans, for their part, were not inactive, either. They launched a raid on July 15, supported by a severe bombardment, and inflicted 160 casualties in the 58th Battalion. Challis was killed by a direct hit.
The news of his death reached Melbourne shortly before the 1916 football season ended. It was officially confirmed in a defence casualty list published on the day before the grand final. The timing seemed uncanny. Hearing just before the grand final of the distressing death of a popular champion who had starred in the previous premiership decider symbolised for many the dreadful times they were enduring.
“Expressions of regret were heard yesterday all over Melbourne when it became known that George Challis had fallen in France,” the Adelaide Advertiser reported. In fact, he was widely mourned not just in Victoria.
Challis was born and raised at Cleveland in the Tasmanian midlands. Awarded a scholarship to Launceston High, he later became a popular teacher at the school. He had been recruited to Carlton after the 1911 interstate football carnival, when he was given a medal for being the best Tasmanian player.
In July 1915, when Challis returned to Tasmania for the last time before he went to war, he caught up with relatives and friends at Cleveland and Launceston. He paid a visit to the little school at Cleveland, and all 20 or so of its young students were assembled to hear him speak. Football inevitably featured in his remarks: “When I come back I’ll teach you boys the finer points of the game,” he said.
His death was deeply felt in Tasmania. Profound grief gripped the Cleveland community. Many homes in these districts retained a photo of Challis on a wall or mantelpiece for years.
He was the eldest of eight siblings. His brother Archie, who was also a talented footballer, settled at Scottsdale (north-east of Launceston), where he worked for the Commonwealth Bank. One of his daughters, Roberta (Bobbie), married Graeme Casboult in 1953. Graeme’s first cousin Lance Casboult was to become Levi Casboult’s grandfather.
Levi has inherited size and football ability from the Casboult clan.
Graeme, for example, was invited by Essendon recruiters to try out at Windy Hill. But he couldn’t see himself living in Melbourne and stayed at Scottsdale, where his family had a garage/petrol station business for decades. Bob Chitty, the legendary Carlton enforcer, lived nearby after becoming Scottsdale’s playing coach.
Charlie Casboult, Graeme’s brother, was pursued by Geelong, and did a pre-season there in 1965. But it was a tall order for an 18-year-old forward to usurp stars such as Doug Wade and Bill Ryan, especially when his opponents in the practice matches were classy defenders who represented Victoria, Peter Walker and Roy West. Getting injured didn’t help either. Charlie ended up playing for Geelong West, and lives at Corio today.
Levi Casboult, like Graeme and Charlie – and George Challis – was born and raised in Tasmania. His early allegiance to Carlton was influenced by relatives on his mother’s side. For years his preferred football code was soccer, and it was not until he was 16, after his family moved to Melbourne, that he found himself drawn to making Australian rules his priority. He has had to work hard to absorb what Challis referred to as the finer points, and ill-fortune with injury has at times delayed his development. But his rapid emergence in recent weeks has been a revelation.
While his contested marks and a freakish snap from the boundary have attracted attention, no doubt his coaches have also been highlighting his team involvements – the hit-outs to advantage, and the stirring chase and tackle that created a goal for a teammate.
Graeme and Charlie Casboult have enjoyed following Levi’s progress.
George Challis would have, too.
Ross McMullin’s biography of George Challis is included in his latest book Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation. He is talking about the book today at the Melbourne Writers Festival (10am, BMW Edge).
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.