South Africa’s record 53-8 victory over Australia in Johannesburg on 30 August 2008 was a bittersweet win, bringing the curtain down on the international career of Percy Montgomery, the most capped Springbok in history.
Addressing a press conference after the match, Montgomery said: “Not many players get to choose when they want to leave test rugby, and I think that is what makes today so special for me, because I know that at test level it is time to go.
“I have had many memorable moments in the Bok jersey and some testing ones as well, but I would never exchange one moment of either the highs or the lows.
“It has been a privilege to play for my country and to play in some of the best teams the world has seen,” Montgomery said. “I also feel blessed as a player to have played against so many great players and so many different countries.”
“I was asked why I would come back after a high of winning the World Cup in France, but for me every time I put on a Bok jersey was a high, and I got to do that eight more times this year.”
Montgomery’s career was marked by many ups and downs. He was, at one stage, the favourite target of hecklers and, arguably, the most disliked Springbok player of all. Yet when he retired he was among the most respected and liked of all players.
With his trademark blonde locks and white boots, some saw him as a showboater but, in truth, Montgomery has always been a quiet man away from the field of play and, according to his teammates and coaches, he was a model professional and a wonderful teammate.
He began his provincial career in 1996 for Western Province as a speedy centre, and the following season made his Springbok debut against the British and Irish Lions.
Like much of his early career in the green and gold, Montgomery’s performances were mixed in a 2-1 series loss. He scored a try on debut in the second test in Durban, but South Africa lost the match 18-15, despite outscoring the Lions three tries to nil. Montgomery had been entrusted with the kicking duties, but failed to land a single one, which allowed the tourists to score only their second series victory over the Boks.
The following week, in the third test, he again scored a try as South Africa crushed the Lions 35-16. Jannie de Beer, who had been called up for the game because of Montgomery’s kicking woes, contributed 13 points with the boot.
When Andre Joubert retired, Montgomery was moved from centre to fullback by Nick Mallett, a coach who always rated the former SACS schoolboy highly.
From the end of Carel du Plessis’ short reign as Springbok coach and well into Mallett’s tenure, Montgomery was an integral part of a team that equalled the world record for successive test victories with 17.
That run began in August 1997, when Montgomery was still playing at centre, with a then-record 61-22 victory over Australia in Pretoria. A brilliant performance by the Springboks that yielded eight tries was highlighted by a sensational sprint and try by Montgomery that covered three-quarters the length of the field, following a quick throw-in.
He was part the team that thrashed France 52-10 at the Park des Princes on 22 November 1997 in a performance that many people believe to be the finest of all Springbok performances.
The following week he was in action against England at Twickenham in another record win, this time by a 29-11 margin.
On 6 December 1997, at Murrayfield, Montgomery enjoyed a sensational game against Scotland, scoring two tries and landing eight conversions for a personal haul of 26 points in a record 68-10 win over Scotland.
The following season, 1998, he scored 30 points against Wales in Pretoria as the Boks crushed the Dragons 96-13.
That same season Ireland were brushed aside twice and the Springboks won in Perth against the Wallabies, and in Wellington against the All Blacks, as South Africa went unbeaten to secure their first Tri-Nations title.
Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were beaten on successive weekends in November before England ended SA’s unbeaten run in December at Twickenham by 13 points to seven.
Montgomery helped the Springboks to a third place finish in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, but South Africa’s performances had slipped and he became widely targeted as a perceived weak link in the Springbok team when doing provincial duty for Western Province away from the friendly confines of Newlands.
After a decent season in 2001, South Africa went through a poor 2002 season and Montgomery, hated by many, chose to further his career in Welsh club rugby with Newport. By this time he had already accumulated over 50 international caps.
In May 2003, he was sent off for pushing a touch judge to the ground in an uncharacteristic outburst. He was handed a heavy fine and a two-year ban, but 18 months of the ban was later suspended. Despite the lessening of the ban, Montgomery missed the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
The tournament proved to be a disaster for South Africa, with a fractured team exiting at the quarterfinals stage, well beaten 29-9 by New Zealand. Not long after the World Cup, Jake White was appointed to succeed Rudolf Straeuli as Springbok coach. It was a move that changed Montgomery’s career and his legacy.
White was an admirer of Montgomery’s game, and one of his first moves was to fly overseas and convince him to play for South Africa once again. It proved to be one of the biggest masterstrokes of White’s successful career as Bok coach.
When he returned to the national team, it became immediately apparent that Montgomery had matured as a player during his time overseas. He had also become an accurate and reliable kicker, using a trademark short and economical run-up.
He took over the goal kicking duties in the national team and was the top scorer in the Tri-Nations competition in 2004, when South Africa won the competition for the second time. The following year he topped the points scoring once more.
Under White, and with Montgomery and another veteran, Os du Randt, back in the fold, the Springboks’ rugby fortunes were once again on the up.
However, in 2006, questions were asked when Australia thrashed the Springboks 49-0 in Brisbane. That same season, however, they managed to beat the Wallabies and also ended a 15-match unbeaten run by New Zealand’s All Blacks.
Confidence in the Springboks, White, and his veteran team was restored and the scene was set for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which would be the crowning glory of Montgomery’s career, even though he was no longer the pacy young flyer he had once been.
After two massive wins over England, a victory over Samoa, and middling Tri-Nations’ results, during which coach White used a second-string line-up for the Boks’ overseas games, fans were not sure what to expect from the green and gold at the World Cup.
In a warm-up contest, South Africa thrashed Namibia 105-13 at Newlands as Montgomery scored a Springbok record 35 points. Then, it was off to Murrayfield where Scotland were beaten 27-3 in the Boks’ final warm-up match.
Rugby World Cup 2007
Montgomery scored a massive 29 points in the Springboks’ opening match at the World Cup – a 59-7 victory over Samoa – and went on to play a pivotal role in South Africa’s title winning campaign.
He contributed 18 points as England were whitewashed 36-0 in a pool game and then five points as a substitute in a 30-25 victory over a feisty Tongan side. Against the USA, he weighed in with 15 points in a 64-15 win as South Africa went through their pool unbeaten.
Montgomery contributed nine points in the Springboks’s 37-20 win over Fiji in the quarterfinals and followed that up with 17 in SA’s 37-13 semi-final whipping of Argentina.
In a tight final, Montgomery scored 12 of South Africa’s 15 points as the Boks lifted the William Webb Ellis Trophy after a 15-6 victory over England.
Highest points’ scorer
Montgomery finished as the highest points scorer in the tournament – the only man to top 100 – with 105 points in the Springboks’ seven wins. However, his contribution amounted to much more than kicking penalties and conversions.
His tactical acumen enabled South Africa to play rugby from favourable field positions, and his safe and steady play at the back gave the Bok backline a settled and solid look. While the defence was strong, Montgomery’s intelligent running lines also enabled South Africa to excel on attack and score 33 tries – second only to New Zealand, who benefited from two huge wins over minnows Portugal and Romania.
In the 2008 season, Montgomery played mostly off the bench. He was given only one start against New Zealand at Newlands, but it marked his 100th test for the Springboks, making him the first man to achieve the milestone for South Africa, and only the ninth player in rugby history to reach three figures.
He retired with a host of important South African records to his name. They included:
- Most caps – 102
- Most points – 893 (Naas Botha is second with 312)
- Most conversions – 153
- Most penalties – 148
- Most points in a test – 35 versus Namibia
In addition, Montgomery also scored 25 tries and kicked six drop goals.
His contribution to rugby, South Africa, and rugby in South Africa was recognised in October 2008 when he was named to receive National Orders.
After his retirement, Montgomery joined the Springboks as a kicking coach.
Percy Montgomery goes down in history as not only a Springbok legend, but a legend of the game of rugby.
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