Magnificent Monty

In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine, Percy Montgomery told Keo why he’s come back to South Africa and how his game has evolved since he left for Wales three years ago. Words: Mark Keohane

Percy Montgomery preaches passion for the Bok jersey and not a deep-thinking rugby philosophy. You ask a question and you get an answer. It tends to be more concise than contorted.

He listens carefully to the question. He gives a considered answer, and mostly he wants to talk about the Springboks. He engages in conversation, mindful that his personality is not the kind that dominates with words, but certainly knows how to impress with deed.

He has played more than 60 Tests for the Springboks as a fullback, wing, centre and flyhalf. He is the highest points scorer in South African Test history, even though he kicked in only 30 of those Tests, and he helped transform the Springboks into champions in 2004.
Opinions differ radically on Montgomery, and there is no attempt by him to influence a change in how people perceive him.

‘Perception is powerful,’ he says. ‘People take a view and they tend to go with it. They like what they see of you on television or they don’t. Few actually know you, so they’ll assume the Monty they’ve come to like or dislike based on what they see during a rugby match is Monty.

‘Perhaps when you’re younger it does affect you, but it is not something I think about much. I am comfortable with my own identity and my own relationships.

‘I have things I want to achieve in rugby and that was one of my biggest motivations to return to South Africa. The Springboks are very special to me. It hurt to sit in a television studio and watch the Boks getting humiliated overseas. I got a lump in my throat. I felt sad and tearful.

‘I knew a lot of those guys and I knew what they were going through. Some of the teams picked at the time were just not good enough. It wasn’t that they did not want to win. They weren’t good enough to win. I also knew how strong the Boks could be if everyone was available and wanted to play.

‘I know my desire has always been there to play. At the time, I was not eligible because of the overseas ruling. When the ruling changed, I did not hesitate to accept Jake’s offer. And now I want to take it beyond me and I want to help younger South African players. I believe I have rugby knowledge to pass on and I’d much rather South African players be the beneficiaries than Welsh players.’

Montgomery makes mention of the Welsh influence, because that’s where he has spent the last three years. Many of his club team-mates today parade as Six Nations champions. Home was Newport, where once it had been Clifton.

And before I can even ask how the hell he survived, he volunteers the information.

‘Don’t get me wrong. There is no regret about having gone to Newport or about contributing to their success and, perhaps indirectly, that of some of the younger Welsh players at a national level. It was a very important time in my life, because it gave me stability and responsibility.

‘I settled into the routine easily of being the family man in a quiet village and I loved the responsibility of being one of the senior professionals at the club. Again the perception of many people was that I would not cope in a small village and in a routine where my priority first thing in the morning was getting my son to school on time and then getting to the gym or training.

‘The reality was a bit different, because the family aspect of my life has always been important and I was very content to be away from the limelight and the supposed glamour life of a rugby player in South Africa.

‘Newport was good for me and my rugby flourished because of the responsibility that came with being an overseas professional. But the pressure was different to playing in South Africa. The expectation was more realistic and the media were more forgiving of a mistake, a poor performance or a missed kick. I felt I was judged on my rugby over there and not the length of my hair, my surname, my language, my taste in fashion or the colour of my boots.

‘I had to perform as a player and I had to earn the respect of the locals. I worked hard at my game and put in the hours. I felt I also got the reward in my performance.’

Montgomery, in June, entered another three-year phase with his move to Durban. Again, he is under no illusion that the public view of Montgomery will have changed.

‘I’ll admit that last year was probably the most comfortable I felt playing at any stadium in South Africa. The public seemed to treat me as a Springbok. They did seem to appreciate what I was doing on the field. I was playing for Newport and there was no provincial attachment. I was “Monty the Bok” and not “Monty the Stormer”.

‘But this year, I am a Springbok who will be playing for the Sharks. It probably will make a difference, so I am not being naive about my return to South African rugby. Staying in Newport and playing for South Africa would have meant less of that kind of pressure. But I would have been staying in Wales for the wrong reasons.’

Then why come back?

‘Because I missed the rugby. I want to play in big stadiums, in front of passionate South African supporters. I want to play in the Currie Cup and the Super 14. I am South African. This is where I want to be, and I want young South African players to benefit from my experience, just like I did when playing next to Henry Honiball and James Small. Those were the guys I looked up to and those were the guys who taught me so much early on in my international career.

‘A couple of the younger players in the Bok squad asked me about playing overseas and my advice to them was not to go anywhere right now. “Stay in South Africa and play for the Boks.” That’s what I said. I respect any player who wants to go because of a personal situation or because he wants a change or a new challenge, but if your priority is just rugby and the Boks, then stay here and give the Boks everything. If you go now for money, you’ll regret it.’

I challenge Montgomery on this view and ask him what was different about his departure in 2002.

‘I did not go because I was disillusioned with SA rugby. I had been given a clear indication that I was not going to be picked for the Boks and I made a commitment to Newport. I had played 50 Tests at that stage, and I recognised that a change would help with my growth as a person. I wanted a new challenge. Yes, I was not happy with things in South African rugby, but it was incorrectly reported that I left because of transformation. I never once made a comment why I left, because it went beyond rugby. I wanted some space away from the nonstop scrutiny players get in South Africa, and Newport proved to be the ideal environment.’

Publicly misrepresented, I ask him if he felt he was also misunderstood as a player when he left for Wales.

‘No. Again the public may have their views, but team-mates have always known my attitude to the game and just how much the Springboks mean to me. Being a Springbok is what I have been for most of my senior career and I value every jersey I get. I also know that I have earned it. I’ve never lacked professionalism as a player. I would never let my team-mates down with a lack of work ethic. You just have to ask those guys who have been my team-mates for the last 10 years what they think. Those opinions matter to me and they knew my commitment to rugby and the jersey. So, no, within the team context I was never misunderstood, and that’s what mattered to me.

‘I think I am a better performer now, because where I have changed the most would be in my consistency as a player. Again, I think that has to do with experience, getting older and maturing as an international player. I read the game better now. I think I control it better from fullback because I want to take charge of a situation. When you are younger and you are playing alongside a more experienced player, you tend to look to that player for reassurance and don’t provide the reassurance yourself.’

Montgomery singles out the penalty kick on the stroke of half-time against the Wallabies in Durban as an example of his maturity as a Test player.

‘That was a big moment in the Test. I had been kicking well all season and even though I missed a few kicks early on in that Test, I knew I was striking the ball well. We battled in the first half and were very fortunate to be trailing by only seven points. When we got the penalty, I knew the impact it would have on our mood going into half-time.

‘It was a difficult kick from about 45m out. I knew I had to get it and didn’t doubt that if I stuck to my routine, trusted my follow-through and read the wind correctly, I would make the kick. If there has been a valid criticism of me in my early playing days it would have been that I did not always play the big points as well as I should have.

‘But the responsibility was mine in Durban. I had to give the team a lift. They were looking to me as the senior player. I love that kind of pressure, because I understand what my role in the team is. But you know that kind of confidence also comes from the playing environment that Jake has created. There are no mind games. You don’t find yourself guessing as a player. He respects the role of the senior player and he respects the knowledge that comes with a senior player who has been a Test player for 10 years. He encourages input from senior players. He challenges us to make the biggest possible contribution. You can’t believe how different that is to past experiences.’

White is probably Montgomery’s greatest admirer when it comes to rugby. The Bok coach has religiously maintained his conviction about the qualities of Montgomery. It hasn’t become a fashionable thing to do in the last 12 months. White, ever since I’ve known him, has always questioned how the rest of the country can’t recognise the skills and value of Montgomery.

‘We rave about Naas Botha, who was one of the game’s greats. Monty’s broken Naas’s records and played Test rugby in nearly every position in the backline. You’ve got to have something to play fullback, wing, centre and flyhalf for the Boks. It is not like he did it for Romania,’ enthuses White. ‘Look at his Test debut as a flyhalf in Buenos Aires. You get picked to play there and the coach tells you that you may not kick the ball. He did this for 73 minutes, without buckling under the strain. He did this until he was given the instruction to kick for touch. Do you know how good a guy must be to play a Test under those restrictions and to get it right?’

Montgomery says White’s honesty is the glue that has bound the Boks.
‘He tells you whether you will be playing and he tells you what he expects of you. He empowers you and you know the situation. He has introduced consistency in the way every player thinks and in team selection.

‘And my biggest goal is to reward him with consistency. Before I left for Wales, my Test goal-kicking strike rate was 69%. Last year it was 75% and very close to 80% for most of the season. I want to kick at 80% for the Boks. That’s what the coach expects of me and that’s what I know I am capable of.

‘But I also know I haven’t been selected just to kick for posts. Jake wants me to teach the younger players, but still be prepared to learn from others. It is an all-win situation – and that’s why I came back to South Africa and that’s why I encourage South African players to stay here.

‘We’ve got something going for 2007. Don’t give up on it. There will be setbacks, but as long as there’s honesty in the team and we’re honest with each other, we will succeed.’