Monty the master

In a SA Rugby magazine exclusive, former Bok fullback Andre Joubert pays tribute to Percy Montgomery.

Playing for your country can be a lonely business at times. It’s not just about adoration and the bright lights. Sometimes, when it is going against you, and the crowds who normally support you are suddenly hypersensitive to your every false move, it feels like the world is against you.

It was for this reason that a couple of years ago, when Percy was going through one of those troughs that all top sportsmen do, I wrote him a letter of support. It was after a game at Newlands against Australia. He actually didn’t play badly at all, but it seemed that the crowd thought he was going through a nightmare, and the media were quite critical the next day.

I told him in the note to back himself, to believe in himself, not to listen to the well-meaning advice of others. I reminded him that only he knew what he was tasked to do for the team, what his job was, and whether he was succeeding or failing. Supporters can be fickle, but you have to remain true to yourself, and true to the team goal.

I think that generally Percy has been true to that. There have been a few hesitant moments, of course there have. He wouldn’t be human if there hadn’t been, but then that happens to everyone. For the most part though he has done everything the team could possibly expect of him, and he has been the consummate professional.

Our careers did not overlap that much. There were only two times that we shared a dressing room, one of which was in the final Test that I played at Loftus in 1997. It was that famous match against Australia, where we thumped them 61-22 in the final game of the Tri-Nations, running all over them in the second half.

I can’t remember too much about Percy. I had just come back from a spell out of the team, and I think we were all too concerned about playing for our own places to really think too much about what other players were doing. Percy was just one of several young guys in the dressing room.

He had played against the British & Irish Lions, and in that year’s Tri-Nations matches at outside centre. From what I recall, he kept very much to himself. He was a quiet member of the team, but then that tends to be the case when you are young. I wasn’t present later on, when he became a senior statesman, but I do know from watching him play on the field that he was a guy who appeared to exude a calmness which was transmitted to those around him.

One of my abiding memories of that Loftus Test, which also turned out to be Carel du Plessis’s last as coach, was setting up Percy for one of his first tries at international level. It came when a ball was kicked into touch near the halfway line. I summed up the situation, saw that the Wallabies didn’t have a lot of guys back, and I threw out a long throw to Percy who used his pace to score the try.

His unbelievable pace is what I remember about Percy’s play in those days. Those who had played against him spoke about how quick he was. He had started out for Western Province at flyhalf, but then moved to centre, which was where he played when we were team-mates.

As it turned out, it was me who gave him his first opportunity to move to fullback when I injured my knee and was unavailable for Nick Mallett’s first tour as coach to Italy, France and Britain. Justin Swart may have played in the first Test against Italy in Bologna, but then he was injured, and Percy took his chance of filling the last line of defence with both hands.

It was a great tour for the Boks, and Percy, both with his general play and with his goal kicking, was one of the shining lights. That set up his career, and from there it was hard for me to grab back the No 15 jersey. Nick had a winning team, they had momentum, and there was no need to change the winning combination.

If there is one thing that has disappointed me about Percy it is that I am not sure he has ever really done full justice to his potential as an attacking fullback. With his pace, he could have been devastating joining the line. He had the potential to rip defences to shreds in the same way that Christian Cullen used to when he was playing for the All Blacks.

The fullback orientation has changed quite a bit in the modern game. It has become much more of a defensive position than it used to be. It started changing towards the end of my career, and I got around it by setting myself up as a second flyhalf in the team.

Percy, with his early experience of playing flyhalf, was ideally suited to do that, to have an impact on the game by helping set up plays, but it is not something that he often did. Had he done so, I think he could have been even more effective. Apart from his pace and his distribution skills, he also has an excellent tactical brain and tactical kicking boot.

I don’t know why, but under Jake White the Springboks tended to neglect the fullback as an attacking option. I think Percy could have done more earlier in his career to turn matches in his team’s favour by getting involved from first phase. The Boks tended to shovel the ball back to the flyhalf, but if they could split the line more often – perhaps use Percy as a decoy on the blindside – I think it could have made the Boks so much more potent on attack.

But there again, so much depends on what game the coach wants you to play, and maybe Percy was just fitting into the game plan that the situation demanded. Generally you could not fault his catching and his field kicking, while his goal kicking is one of his biggest attributes.

I found it quite strange that he lost his place in the Bok team in 2001 through a perception that his goal kicking was inconsistent. I have always seen it as one of his biggest attributes and I don’t think enough of a fuss was made of this aspect of the successful Springbok World Cup campaign last year.

Percy was unbelievable during the tournament in France, and I think the Boks drew a huge amount of confidence from the calm way he went about striking the ball over from all angles and distances. Having a guy in the team who can kick like that makes a huge difference to the all-round confidence of the players.

They know that if the situation is set up, the kicker will make sure. It is quite different when your place kicker is less reliable and you aren’t quite sure if he is going to be able to capitalise properly on the pressure you exert on the opposition.

This is particularly important in a World Cup, and in a World Cup final even more so. It was the make-or-break game that comes around only once in a while, and yet if Percy felt any nerves, he did not show it. Every time the opportunity was created for him, he made sure, and by keeping the scoreboard ticking over, the Boks ensured that England were always playing catch-up, and thus always the team under pressure.

I watched the game on television and was amazed to learn from people who were there that Percy was actually carrying an injury from an early stage of that game. He did not look injured to me, but it is a tribute to his commitment and his bravery that he was able to play through an injury and produce such a match-winning performance.

Then again, it is probably a product of having played overseas for so many years. Jannie de Beer is a player who I played against often and never really rated that highly, but then he went overseas for a few years, and after his return, he was just a completely different player. His improvement was astounding.

Percy will probably be the first to admit that he was one of those guys who had several different careers. There was the time before he went overseas, when maybe he was still impressionable and vulnerable in the sense that he would still produce the odd scatty moment. But when he came back from Wales in 2004 to play for the Boks, you could tell that here was a professional, finished product.

I think we have seen something similar just recently from Butch James, who also underwent a major growth process as an international rugby player when he worked under Eddie Jones. There is a lot to be said for exposure to the professional approach of the northern hemisphere clubs. Percy’s approach is very professional and he appears to have his head in the right place.

He also quite clearly looks after his body very well too. He went something like 80 Tests without being injured, and you can’t do that without being supremely fit. To me that is another one of his big strengths as a player – he has done the hard work to ensure that he is physically up to the challenges that get thrown his way.

But even if you are physically fit, the nature of South African rugby is such that longevity is only really reserved for special players. When I say this I am referring to the chopping and changing that South African rugby tends to do, not just between players used in the team, but coaches as well.

Every new coach has a new idea and a different view on the merits of the individuals who are available to him. For instance, my last Test was also Carel’s last, but he had only been coach for eight matches. In that time, he had used a lot of different players, and then he made way for Nick.

Percy survived this transition between coaches, and then several other similar situations later on. It was a masterstroke on Jake White’s part to bring him back when he did, and the experience he built up through his career was crucial to the success of the Boks at the 2007 World Cup.

He is a bit like a good wine in that I don’t think I ever saw Percy play as well as he did at that World Cup. It was not just his goal kicking that was invaluable, but the way he kept things together at the back. As I mentioned earlier, he has a calmness about him that rubs off on the players around him, and it was clear that the youngsters in the team responded to him.

Given the chopping and changing that goes on in South African rugby, it is an incredible achievement on Percy’s part to be on the threshold of playing 100 Tests for the Springboks. It is a testament to the way he cares for his body and the overall professionalism of his approach – he has bounced back from setbacks, and he hasn’t allowed them to beat him.

I think that is an important lesson for all young players coming through who dream of being like Percy and following in his footsteps. As I wrote to him in that letter, it is important to believe in yourself and what you are doing. He came through that ordeal by playing good rugby and doing his talking on the field. That has always been his way, and I salute him for it.

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine.