Frank Hubert. Frankly, he was a household name among sports enthusiasts in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was in town briefly last June, and I and one of Frankie’s rugby products, Nigel Forbes, met up with him for a stroll down Memory Lane.
We spent some wonderful time digging into his sporting past and sharing memories of St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, and Havelocks Sports Club.
Hailing from a showbiz family in Dehiwela where his grandfather Donovan Andree was another household name as a sports and entertainment promoter back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Frankie first migrated to England with his parents when he was just five years old. However, he returned to Sri Lanka in 1969 as a 13-year-old kid and found his way into St Peter’s College, carving his name into the school’s rugby and cricket annals.
It all started when legendary coach Archibald Perera spotted Frankie playing football.
Frankie recalls: “I learned to play some football as a kid when I was in England. I could control the ball with both feet. One day while I was playing football on the college grounds Archie called me up. He asked, ‘are you Alfie’s son? You got a good stride and you must play Rugger’.
“So I joined Rugger practices and soon I was drafted into the First XV squad when I was just under 15 years (1971) and went on to play my first season in 1972 under Jeff de Jong. I captained college in 1975.
“I started as a fullback. In ’73, our captain Rohan Wiratunga asked me to switch my position when Nalyn Wiratunga, our regular fly half couldn’t continue to play due to the GCE O/L rule.”
Frankie showed his sporting prowess by also securing a spot in the college First XI cricket team, gaining a reputation as a hard-hitting opening batsman.
“I was the 12th man when we were bundled out for 36 runs in our second innings in the Joe-Pete big match in 1972. Roy Dias was leading St Peter’s and Rohan Fernando was the captain of St Joseph’s. I can still recall the words uttered by Archie when he walked into the dressing room during the tea break at the Colombo Oval,” Frankie recalls.
Frankie went on to play in the two drawn big matches in 1974 and ’75, and was vice-captain in Bernard Wijetunga’s team in ’75. He played some entertaining innings in his stint with the team, scoring and unbeaten 150 against Thurstan, 81 against S. Thomas’ and 93 against St Benedict’s College at Kotahena.
Switching his thoughts to his first love, Frankie said: “Rugger was my favourite sport. I really enjoyed playing and later coaching and refereeing. In ‘72 we had a fine season under Jeff de Jong and ended up as ‘Unofficial Schools Rugby Champions’. My first full season was 1973 under Rohan Wiratunga. He was a brilliant player and a smart captain too. We had a superb line and to go with it a strong set of forwards. We made some daring three-quarter moves; our crisscross moves were superior, and opponents were outfoxed many times.” The team comprised Ronald Rodrigo as scrum-half combining well with Nalyn Wiratunga who was the fly-half; Rohan Wiratunga was the first centre; Shirley Thambinayagam and Ralston Jayasekera were at the wings and Frank Hubert was full back. In the pack, Travis De Jong was the hooker with Nalin Jayasuriya and Anura Goonathilaka as line-out specialists, Earl Serpanchy, and the Van Langenberg brothers Michael and Noel forming the third row, along with forwards Bernard McLeod and Mark Gomis.
“We had a really good season, beating St Anthony’s, Isipathana, St Joseph’s and S. Thomas’. We didn’t play Royal due to a sudden introduction of a GCE O/L rule but we played Trinity. That was a close game and both teams had a fine season. We almost pulled it off. It would’ve been fitting reward to our coach Archibald Perera who was looking forward to it,” Frankie said Leading up to that encounter, St Peter’s had not beaten Trinity since 1941, that’s for 31 years though there had been many close results, with three drawn games. In 1969, it was a 3-all draw, 1970 was an 11-6 win for Trinity and in 1971 both teams featured in a draw once again. In 1972, Athula Unantenne’s Trinitians came from behind at Nittawela to beat Jeff de Jong’s Peterites by 14-10.
The 1973 encounter at Bambalapitiya between Rohan Wiratunga’s unbeaten side and equally placed Jeffery Yu’s Trinity side was expected to be a thriller. It was indeed, as Frank related it: “We were minus some senior players due to the new ruling. I had to take over the kicking duties, though this was not my first game. I managed it well. Noel Van Langenberg scored a try in the first half and I converted that along with a penalty. So we were leading 9-0 at half time. In the second half the Trinitians came back stronger. Their winger Jenkins (who replaced regular winger Bandaranayake) scored twice, Jeffery Yu converted and Trinity led 10-9.
“During the dying stages we were attacking the Trinity goal line. Referee Bentley Barsenbach awarded us a penalty on the 25-yard mark. Rohan wanted me to take the kick, I was confident and took the mark. I could see all expecting me to kick it over. It was a perfect kick but it lacked the power I presume and hit the cross bar and bounced back into the field. The Trinity forwards picked it up and cleared the ball. The match ended with a 9-10 loss.
“I was disappointed and so were the rest of the team as we came so close to recording a win. Yet it was not to be, until 13 more years.”
Though they lost the Peterites ended the season on top while sharing honours with Trinity and Royal as unofficial champions. All three teams had a loss each while St Peter’s played 10 games compared to Trinity and Royal who played eight apiece.
Sharing his memories of the following seasons, Frankie describes the 1974 side: “Nimal Jayasuriya was the captain and we had to rebuild the team with most of the senior players unavailable. My good friend Michael Jayasekera crossed over to S. Thomas’ and we had Shanthilal Perera, Everard Serpanchy, and Roshan Deen in the side. We managed to record wins against S. Thomas’, St Joseph’s and St Anthony’s but lost to Royal and Trinity. “In ’75, when I was appointed as captain, Ranjan Perera deputised as vice-captain and Roshan Deen was the scrum-half. We couldn’t play a proper season. I remember Roshan Deen was out before the Trinity match due to an injury and during the match against Trinity College at Bambalapitiya, there were crowd troubles which spilled into the playing field. The referee called off the game and then Rector Fr Theodore Peiris suspended the rugby season. “That year eight of us were picked to play for the Combined Schools XV (Under-20) led by Trinitian Y.S Ching. We played against SLRFU Under-22 side led by Peterite and former captain Jeff de Jong. In that side there were nine Peterites. What was interesting is that we beat the SLRFU Under-22 team and it was a sensational news back then.”
With St Peter’s cancelling the remaining matches in the 1975 season, Frankie was invited to play for Havelocks Sports Club. He joined the Park club and at the same time joined Colts Cricket Club to pursue cricket. He goes on to say: “My first love and passion is rugby. I later gave up cricket and concentrated on rugger. I wore the brown and pink Havelocks Jersey as the fly-half for the first time against Air Force under Shafie Jainudeen. The team comprised Thajone Savanghan, Jeff and Travis de Jong, Jeyer Rodriguesz, Gavin Stevens, Jeffery Yu, Omar Sheriff, Hafi Abdeen, Hanzil Samad, Lanil Tennakoon, Anton Benedict, Chula Dharmadasa and Marco De Silva. We managed to win that match and from there onwards turned the club’s fortunes around as we secured some famous wins and ended among the top teams in the League. “In 1976, Thajone Savanghan captained the club and we managed to win the Clifford Cup by beating Navy in the finals. We ended as runners-up in the League. In 1978 Anton Benedict captained the club and that year we became champions. In 1977, I was picked for the Sri Lanka squad for the Rugby Asiad in Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) but since the tour was not sanctioned by the then Government we couldn’t participate. So I missed the opportunity to wear the national jersey.
“However, I was picked in the Sri Lanka team for the 1978 Hong Kong 7s under Mohan Balasuriya’s captaincy. We had five Peterites, Angelo Wickremaratne, Ronald Rodrigo, Jeff de Jong, Michael Jayasekera (who later turned out for S. Thomas’) and I. We also had Lanil Tennakoon in the side and Gamini Fernando was our coach. Though we couldn’t win any trophies we won the admiration of the crowd for our performance and style of play. “In 1979, I sustained an injury during the Havelocks-Police SC match at Police Park. That brought an end to my rugby-playing career but I couldn’t stay away from the game. I took up the whistle and started refereeing club games and school matches including the Bradby Shield, and CR & FC versus CH & FC matches.” In between, Frankie joined Freudenberg Shipping & Freight forwarding Company and his mentor Archibald Perera invited him to assist him coaching rugby at St Peter’s, and he accepted whole-heartedly. It was a voluntary job but Frankie did it with much passion and commitment while managing his office work and family life. It was not easy back then but spending time with his guru and helping his alma mater brought him so much joy and satisfaction.
Meanwhile Julian Grero, then President of Havelocks SC invited Frank Hubert to join the club again and steer the team. Havelocks was not doing well as a team during that season and the club was finding it difficult to recruit a coach. Upon his return to the club, the committee appointed Frankie as captain for the 1980 season but it didn’t go down well with some of the senior players. Jeff Rutnam joined the club as their new coach and with Frankie recruited new players.
Havelocks had a fresh squad mostly comprising young school-leavers such as Neomal Surasena, Mohamed Sally, Sandy Hameed and Hisham Abdeen from Isipathana, Chaminda Rupasinghe from S. Thomas’, Orville Fernando, Rienzie de Zilva, Angelo Wickremaratne, and Everard Serpanchy from St Peter’s, Andrew Van Hoff from St Joseph’s, and Royce Samaratunga from Science College. In addition, Marco de Silva, Sandy Kelaart, T. Sheik, Kolitha Gunatilleke, P.C. Munasinghe also made the squad. The young Havies were labelled as a “Team of No Hopers”.
Franky recalls: “Jeff and I wanted to rebuild the side and instill some discipline too. Once we asked all players to come to see a match between CR & FC and Police SC which was played at Police Park. It was a Friday. Some of the senior players, my best friends, came to Police Park after the game. This was an off day as we had a match on the following day. It was decided on the day of our match to strike off the four most senior players from the team list as a punishment. It was a hard call and took everyone by surprise. Especially when we are fielding a young side. We went ahead with the match and beat Navy SC convincingly. We had to take these measures to set some standards and discipline as it was a fresh side. “The “Team of No Hopers” went on to beat all fancied teams and became the youngest team to win an SLRFU trophy, beating CR & FC in the Cup Final at Longdon Place where Hisham Abdeen, just at the age of 18, scored the winning try and we won the knockout championship too. I remember after the CR & FC game we all came to the club and due to a minor incident, I was suspended by the club next day. Jeff was a strict disciplinarian.”
Angelo Wickremaratne took over the captaincy of the Park club from Frank Hubert in 1981. The club was filled with star-studded players after their heroics in 1980. During the club 7s, both A and B teams of Havelocks reached cup finals. Franky recalls: “I wanted to retire in that year. In the Clifford Cup, we had to score more than 60 points against Police SC to secure the cup. It was a contest between Havelocks versus Navy and Navy was leading the points table. I was playing against my doctor’s advice, with a heavily strapped knee. We played some champagne rugby and Angi scored five tries; we scored more than 60 points and won the Clifford Cup. We had a fabulous time at Havelocks and with some wonderful memories. After the end of the season I hung up my boots as I could no longer continue playing with injuries.” Frankie has always been blessed with great self-assurance, as anyone who knows him will attest. Drawing inspiration from Old Blue Eyes himself – Frank Sinatra – he has always prided himself in doing things his way. In fact, he lives his life by Sinatra’s signature tune I did it My Way, and this is reflected in whatever he does.
Buoyed with this confidence, Frankie took on the assistant coach’s role at St Peter’s with vigour. In 1982, the college had reached a milestone of 50 years in rugby, and sadly it was the year the doyen of Peterite rugby, Archibald Perera, passed away. Frankie recalls that fateful day: “We were to play Sathissara MV (now Science College) and I was to referee some inter-house matches. I arrived late to the grounds and I saw Archie refereeing. He was not well and I noticed he was struggling. So I took him home. Next morning I got to know he was admitted to the General Hospital. I went there to see him and also thought I could list down the team for the First XV game. Once I met him, I had a chat and he took my hand and gave his “Railway Whistle” (which he used when practising) saying ‘keep this and use it for the game today. I can take it back once I return from hospital’. “I went to office with that and in the afternoon I got the call saying Archie passed away. It was shocking and a very sad news. He was an institution, a legend and has left a void we will never be able to fill.”
With Archie’s demise, Frank took over coaching at St Peter’s. He determined he had to produce a champion side, a XV that could beat Trinity and end the four-decade drought. They had come so close a number of times but missed out.
Frank enlisted the hugely talented Angelo Wickremaratne to assist him at training. He told the coaching staff and the boys that they had to do this for Archie. So, the rebuilding process began. The Peterites couldn’t achieve much in 1982 under Rohan Paulus and in 1983 under Prashantha Wimalasena, however Frankie was confident the 1984 team under Viraj Fernando would come good and also the 1985 team under Rajith Abeygoonewardena. Both squads had a well-trained and talented set of boys who had been playing rugby for some time together.
“In 1984 we drew with S. Thomas’ and beat St Joseph’s and St Anthony’s but lost to Royal College. We went to the Trinity match, played at Bogambara high in confidence. The boys were prepared and they were ready for the challenge. Bertie Dias was the Trinity coach and we were good friends. From the kick-off Peterites were dominating play and held on to a slender lead of 4-3 going into the final minute. It was getting dark and we were well beyond the playing time.
“The referee did not seem bothered and allowed play to continue, while I and Bertie were shouting from our respective benches to blow the whistle and end the game as it was dark and time was up. The referee continued play and Trinity scored under the post in the darkness and the referee then blew full time.
“I was so frustrated and gutted. I resigned from the Referees Union after that match. However, following year Rajitha Abeygoonewardena’s team broke all the hoodoos and delivered the promise they made. I was really pleased with the result.”
In the same year, Frankie said goodbye to his alma mater and the sport that brought him so much recognition. He had a job in the Middle East and then from there he moved to England where he resides in the beautiful countryside with his wife, Jennet, and two daughters. He is a doting grandfather and celebrated his landmark 60th birthday on October 26.
“I left Sri Lanka as a happy man,” says Frankie. “Mission accomplished, with Angi and Orville taking over Peterite Rugby and my Club Havelocks SC achieving further success. I would love to give something back to Sri Lanka Rugby but never found time. However, I made it a point to pay a visit to college and my club and lend a hand when ever needed.
That was Frankie’s wish!