There are two stories that quintessentially define Percy Montgomery’s schooling career at SACS, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The first is less than charitable and it is of a young standard four (grade six) Montgomery being hung out of a second-storey window by a teacher who, to quote the man, was going to ‘shake your brains from your arse into your head’. The second and more significant one is of a teenager who lived for first and second break and couldn’t wait to get onto the practice field to kick and pass a rugby ball, and if he wasn’t on a rugby field, he was in the pool, swimming or playing water polo.
Montgomery, then and now, understood the distance from the pass to the tackle more than he appreciated nouns and adjectives and whatever they taught in mathematics back then. He loved drawing and painting and excelled at art, but he was not a scholar by definition, never wanted to be and has never pretended to be one. But he was a good rugby player in his U9 year and by the time he left SACS 10 years later, he was the best schoolboy fullback in South Africa.
Springbok fullback of the 1960s, HO de Villiers, guided Montgomery’s schoolboy talent from the age of 16. I would have said he ‘coached’ him but HO prefers to use the term ‘guide’ because he says there was very little coaching of a player who would get better with experience but would not be any better than he already was at 16 because someone taught him how to kick, catch and pass a ball.
‘I didn’t walk in and teach him how to play,’ recalls De Villiers. ‘There wasn’t a great deal to teach Percy and all I could offer him were insights gained from having played Test rugby and from having been around a bit longer.’
Simon Perkin, deputy headmaster of SACS and 1st XV coach during the Montgomery era, asked HO to have a look at the ‘boy wonder’ because Perkin was convinced Montgomery was the best rugby player he had seen at SACS. De Villiers started with a simple exercise in contact practice sessions in which he would position himself behind Montgomery and play the practice as if he was the fullback. De Villiers says Montgomery ran and he hobbled, but the purpose of it all was to understand Montgomery’s feel for the game and to study his natural appreciation of how to use the width of the pitch and how he read the play of the opposing flyhalf.
‘Monty was instinctive in a lot of what he did and that is a gift some have and others never get. I told him that he was playing fullback and I was playing fullback, and decision-making was what defined a fullback, so every time at training, in defence or on attack, both of us would have to play the moment as we saw it. I wanted to get a sense of his appreciation of depth, space and field position and I had to put myself in the same position to read the play and react at the same time. I told him that if one of us went right and the other went left then one of us was getting it wrong and it didn’t mean it was him. On most occasions, we took a similar option and there were times when he went right and I went left and I thought I’d taken the wrong decision.
‘What I spoke to him about in the beginning was decision-making – of understanding the qualities or limitations of his team-mates and of backing himself to have a go. If he stuffed it up, but in his heart he felt it was on, then it was not necessarily the wrong decision, but the wrong execution. I knew I could impart knowledge that I had gained through experience and because of his age, that was one thing he didn’t have. He didn’t play in particularly strong SACS teams yet he always excelled and his influence won many games.
‘We worked on him dominating the opposition flyhalf because of superior positioning on defence and how he could turn the flyhalf’s clearances into an advantage for his own team. Most flyhalves were right footed and because of this they would kick onto Percy’s strongest foot, which is his left. It was important for him to watch the ball onto the boot of the flyhalf, and not the flyhalf himself, because that half a second was worth the critical metre a fullback gets when anticipating where the ball would go.
‘Percy was also one of the quickest players and I thought that he could be as much a success on the left wing as he was at fullback. I’d have loved to see him on the wing playing alongside André Joubert at fullback, with Percy then having moved to fullback when André retired. It never happened that way but I always thought Percy would have gained enormous benefit from André and that André would have enjoyed having a specialist fullback among his wingers.
‘Some believed flyhalf was Percy’s best position, but my view was he would be too restricted at flyhalf and he was a greater danger at fullback or wing where he could roam. The fact that he has played flyhalf, centre, wing and fullback for the Springboks shows his versatility but 15 always was the number he coveted and history will judge him as one of South Africa’s finest 15s, who got there because of natural talent and an incredible determination to succeed.
‘Percy’s longevity is because of his discipline in training and his willingness to listen and learn. During those 1st XV school days, he was like a sponge, taking in whatever information I shared and I made sure it was a two-way thing because an old dog can always learn a few things from a young one. I challenged him to show me a few things and I think that encouraged him to think about the game even more. Some would say I coached him, but I never saw it like that. He was a boy in need of an older pal, with a bit more life experience and I think that’s the role I played for him.
‘He adored his parents and he talked a lot about his father’s rugby days in Namibia and about his dad’s advice about rugby, but naturally as a boarder who only saw his parents during holidays, he missed the interaction any boy would have with his dad on a day-to-day basis. The last thing I ever wanted to be was a surrogate parent or a substitute for a father and fortunately Percy never saw our relationship like that. If anything, I was more like an older mate and he treated me like that from the age of 16 and has never stopped treating me in this way.
‘When he first became professional, I managed his affairs, but quickly realised he needed a specialist in that field but we’ve never lost touch. I’d leave a message on his voicemail before every Test, which would be in keeping with what I used to say to the 16-year-old SACS laaitie, and he would always get back to me after the game with a thank you and, if needed, a short discussion about what worked or perhaps didn’t. As two guys who live for rugby, we instantly had a connection and that has never changed.’
Montgomery’s recollection of working with De Villiers is of the respect he and the other players got from him on the training field, and that he was always a buddy more than a master in a school where tradition dictates that older blokes and coaches aren’t mates, but educators.
‘He was amazing to work with because he never preached or spoke about when he was a Springbok. I can’t ever remember him speaking about himself and he really didn’t have to because everyone I knew who had seen HO play spoke about how good he was. I just liked him and felt I could speak to him and that he would never judge what I had to say.
‘When we trained I could ask him questions without feeling stupid and he would give me a rugby explanation if he felt I could have done something better or why my execution of a kick, pass, tackle or move was poor. I knew I was lucky to have a mentor like that but I was as lucky to have a school master in Simon Perkin who allowed the relationship to develop and was never threatened by HO’s influence at training.’
Perkin still teaches at SACS and his classroom has all the standard high-school trappings of chairs, desks and that wonderful smell of wood, but it could also be a rugby museum to Montgomery with his exploits in the SACS No 15 jersey equally prominent in the wall-to-wall classroom display alongside Montgomery, the Springbok. The walls boast newspaper clippings of the brilliant schoolboy Percival Montgomery and one particular match report is of the influence of Montgomery in trouncing Jan van Riebeeck, coincidentally the school attended by Montgomery Senior. There are provincial reports of Montgomery and there are the more obvious ones of Montgomery the World Cup-winning hero, and there are pictures, many of them. There are also gifts of Springbok memorabilia – from Montgomery to Perkin and from Montgomery to SACS.
‘He does anything and everything for the school and he does it without us asking,’ says Perkin. ‘He donates signed Bok kit to help the school raise funds and when in Cape Town, he has always phoned to say hello and see if the school needs him to do a fundraiser or donate anything that can help us. When he was playing for Western Province and had already made the Springbok side, I once asked him to come down and work with the U14C team because they were in need of a boost and I thought that having the Springbok fullback, who just happened to be a SACS old boy, helping out at training would motivate them and show we cared about them as much as we did the U14A team. Monty only asked what time he had to be there and on what afternoon.
‘Whenever he has been in town with the Springboks, he has made an effort to connect with the school and in 1998 when he was on tour with the Springboks in England, he even took the train from London to watch SACS’ 1st XV play a tour game two hours outside London. He sat in the stands, popped into the change room and said hello to everyone afterwards, got back on the train and returned to London to be with the Boks. You can only imagine what that did for the schoolboys because he had come on his own accord when he heard SACS were on tour.’
Other SACS old boys make the wall, with Western Province trio Paul Delport, Ross Skeate (now with Toulon) and Isma-eel Dollie’s achievements honoured, but the walls in this classroom belong to Montgomery.
‘This is it,’ says Perkin. ‘This is Monty’s old class, although he will tell you his class was outside on the Memorial Field and he won’t be wrong because all he ever wanted to do was to be on the field kicking and training. He liked art and design and in 1992, when SACS hosted an arts festival, it was Monty’s painting that was chosen as the programme cover. He enjoyed being creative but academics was not his strength, as I am sure he has told you.’
Montgomery has never pretended to be anything he is not. A giant among academics? He laughs when asked about schoolbooks and exams.
‘I was definitely Perkie’s A student and whenever I e-mail him, I remind him of that in the way I say goodbye. It usually goes: “Your number-one A student, Monty”. I know he gets the humour in it because he used to get it at school when I used to tell him the same thing whenever he had to speak to me about my grades. I always found sport easier than academics and I had greater interest in a ball than a book. I wasn’t a lazy student, but being in a classroom was not something I found easy. I just wanted to play rugby, run, swim and play water polo. We had a crazy water polo coach in Alan Footman and some of my fondest school memories are water polo tours and sessions in which Footie killed us in the pool.
‘However, rugby was always the priority for me. In matric, I made the WP Schools waterpolo team and I asked Footie if he thought I had a chance of making SA Schools. He said yes, but I had to choose between the water polo national trials and going on tour to England with the SACS 1st XV. I had never been overseas and Footie told me I’d probably never get to go on another overseas rugby tour. He suggested I take the rugby tour at the expense of the water polo national trials.’
Footman, at the 2008 SACS Old Boys reunion, reminded Montgomery of the advice, given that for the last 14 years he spent nearly as much time touring overseas with rugby teams as he did at home, before finally settling in Cape Town in 2008 to play out his final year with WP and the Stormers.
‘I dreamed of playing for Western Province at Newlands and of the SACS blue and white being the WP blue and white. My ambition was to play for the Springboks but to get there, I first had to play for Province and I used to love going to Newlands as a schoolboy, watching the rugby and getting lost in my own world where I was playing for Western Province and not a schoolboy on the side of the field. Those were great days, taking the walk down from SACS to Newlands to watch Province play.
‘Perkie always used to say my favourite subjects were first and second break because I could go on the field and practise my kicking and be in my own world and he was right. I loved the Memorial Field and I used to run Newlands Forest most mornings before the other guys in the boarding house were even awake, get back to the boarding house, sneak a carton of milk, down it, have a shower and be ready for first break’s kicking. If they had given grades for sport, for getting up early and for dreaming big about being a Springbok, then I would have been top of the class.’
Montgomery, the most capped Springbok of all time, the most capped Test fullback in the history of the game, Tri-Nations and World Cup winner, is SACS’ most famous modern rugby son, but Perkin will tell you Montgomery is also the school’s most humble celebrity. Humility is the word everyone uses to describe Montgomery, and schoolmasters, housemasters, coaches and old school class-mates all just say he was a popular kid but he was a normal kid, who loved sport and wasn’t that keen on being in a classroom. They all remember him as a boy with strong values and simple tastes.
‘If you gave him a ball to play with, he was at his happiest and that is how we remember him at SACS,’ says Perkin, who also talks of Montgomery’s loyalty to a school whose members were family. ‘This is where he spent his entire youth and the connection between Monty and the school must be how most kids would relate to life at home because when most kids went home in the afternoon, Monty went to Memorial Field to train and then to have fun. He only went home for holidays and as he got older and toured with schools and provincial sporting teams, those holidays at home either got shorter or on occasions didn’t happen. I know he loved going home to Namibia because of his close bond with his parents, but SACS was his home for more than 10 years and I think that is why he is so comfortable coming back here and why he always wants to give so much back to the school. He certainly is not your average past pupil.’
Perkin adores Montgomery, as a dad to a son and an older brother to a younger sibling. He never speaks of them being mates and the relationship will always have the respect of schoolmaster and pupil. Montgomery’s work ethic is singled out, as is his loyalty to people. Perkin gives one example of Montgomery’s loyalty and appreciation to those who have helped him throughout his career, describing the evening Montgomery was selected for the SA Schools team in 1992.
‘The WP Schools team arrived back from Craven Week and Monty was to spend the evening at the home of team-mate and friend Johan van Schalkwyk in Oranjezicht in the City Bowl. I got a message from Johan’s dad asking me to be at the house as Monty needed to see me urgently. He didn’t know what was so important but he asked if I could be there by the time he got back from the airport, at midnight. When I got there, Monty and the Van Schalkwyk family were already there, waiting for me to celebrate his selection for the SA Schools team. He wouldn’t open the bottle of champagne unless I, as his school coach, was there to share the moment. He thanked me for supporting him and for always believing in him. I was overwhelmed that he would involve me in what was his celebration and he has never lost that quality of always being prepared to honour anyone he feels has played a part in his development or success.’
Montgomery played more than 60 games for SACS’ lst XV in three successive seasons, which Perkin believes is a school record, although the inconsistent keeping of documents for records, appearances and points scored means it can’t be verified. Perkin also can’t guarantee Montgomery is the school’s most prolific point-scorer as Anton Chait, who would play flyhalf for WP in the 1990s, was an outstanding schoolboy goal kicker and a SACS points machine.
‘SACS have had some wonderful players over the years. Peter Kirsten [who played cricket for South Africa and rugby for the Junior Springboks] is the most prominent of our flyhalves and Anton Chait was a big star for SACS,’ says Perkin. ‘But Monty has been the most successful rugby player in the school’s history because he played SA Schools for two successive years and only Warren Kruger, in 1975, had made the SA Schools side.’
In 1992 and 1993, Montgomery scored half of the 1st XV’s points, played for WP Schools and SA Schools, with the SA Schools match against a Nampak Academy XV at Newlands in 1992 the apex of his schools rugby career.
‘We were the main curtain-raiser to the Bok match against the Wallabies, who had won the World Cup the year before, and the atmosphere at Newlands was incredible. I scored my first-ever try at Newlands and the only disappointment was that we played in white jerseys and black shorts and the Academy team, which was like an SA Schools B team, played in green and gold. We were told it had to do with politics and we weren’t allowed to play in green and gold as the national schools team. We won and the occasion is still one of the most memorable of my career.’
It was also the only time Montgomery’s mother and father saw him play a live schools game and it so nearly didn’t happen. The SACS Old Boys had raised the funds to sponsor return flights from Namibia and accommodation for the Montgomerys, but they couldn’t get match tickets because the Wallabies were in town. Newspaper reports changed that and Hugh Wiley, head of sponsorship at Norwich Union (WP team sponsor), ensured the Montgomerys would be their guests at the curtain-raiser and Test match. Montgomery scored one of three tries in a 15-13 win that also featured the mercurial talents of Herschelle Gibbs, who’s now an international cricketer, at flyhalf. Montgomery is still of the opinion that he hasn’t seen a schoolboy flyhalf as good since playing against and alongside Gibbs.
‘He could kick the ball for miles and because of the distance of his kicks, it made it very difficult to play against him and I don’t remember us winning much against Bishops when he was there,’ says Montgomery. ‘As a fullback, I had it easier when he was at flyhalf for the SA Schools team. He was also bloody naughty and when the pranks were played or a few rules were broken, you always knew Herschelle would be in there somewhere. He never took himself seriously and back then, among schoolboys, that was just perfect.’
If Gibbs was the superstar at Bishops, then Montgomery held a similar status at SACS, although he says no individual was ever allowed to get ahead of himself, even though it was not in his nature to behave like he was better than any other player.
‘If any guy thought they had made it, the other guys would quickly cut him down to size. Boarding school teaches you to always clean up, it gives you discipline and it also creates an environment that doesn’t tolerate individuals. It didn’t matter if I had scored the winning points or made the SA Schools team, my responsibilities and duties remained the same. The team ethos always came before the desires of any individual.’
Montgomery talks up the virtues of boarding school, suggests his 12-year-old son, Nicholas, could do with the experience and then admits it is unlikely to ever happen.
‘I would never get his mother [Tasmin Tobitt] to agree to it and in any case, I am too close to him and wouldn’t want him away from us.’
Montgomery was a boarder at SACS in Newlands from standard two (grade four), but it was a situation forced on his parents through circumstance and ideally they would have wanted him at home.
‘I know why my parents sent me to boarding school and the experience shaped my character, so if the circumstances were similar and I felt Nicholas would benefit more in that environment then I would have no fear sending him to boarding school, based on my own experience.’
Montgomery, on his return to Cape Town in 2008, enrolled Nicholas at SACS, but not as a boarder, as their Camps Bay home is a 20-minute drive from the school.
‘To be able to send Nicholas to SACS is special for me,’ says Montgomery. ‘And what will make it even more enjoyable is being able to watch him develop and to be able to share some of my memories with him because he will be in a position to relate to the place and the traditions. Who knows, maybe Perkie will even teach him.’
Despite the plaudits for SACS’ boarding school environ-ment and the school itself, Montgomery admits his first year, as an eight-year-old, was painful and that it is difficult to articulate the loneliness and the confusion in understanding how the absence of a traditional home life was actually a good thing. In that first year, he often felt nauseous and home sick and he craved those afternoons at the rugby field watching his dad play or coach, and most of all, he longed for the freedom of doing as he pleased as a six- and seven-year-old in Namibia. Rugby days there were days of being treated and of treats.
Montgomery Senior and Monty speak of the bond there has always been between the two, but a long-distance relationship comes with restrictions and neither father nor son can talk of intimacy during the decade Monty was in Cape Town as a schoolboy and Montgomery Senior was in Namibia. It is why Monty is so determined to make up that time post-rugby.
‘I want to get closer to my family and I also want to make more of an effort with old school friends. I seem to have been on the road since I was eight years old, but being back in Cape Town with Taz, Nicholas and [daughter] Taneal, and having my folks an hour’s drive away in Hermanus, makes me feel settled and content. I am desperate to make up for lost time, especially with my mom and dad, and I will always want to give back to a school that gave me so much.’
It is at SACS that Montgomery was taught discipline and to work hard, and while you can sense the hurt and humiliation when he tells of being hung out of a window by a school teacher and embarrassed in front of his class-mates, the tears of a young boy lessened as the teenager thrived and triumphed. Montgomery, despite times of loneliness in his first few years, never talks of feeling neglected.
‘My parents were a phone call away and in the boarding house people cared about us and there were always invites from class-mates to spend the weekends at their homes. I missed my home, but I never felt unloved and the more I got involved with sport, the less time I had to feel lonely.’
SACS junior-school headmaster, Stuart Anderson, who retired at the end of 2008, described Montgomery as an honest and well-liked boy. Anderson, like those who taught Montgomery at junior school, can’t recall anything out of the ordinary, other than the obvious sporting talent that saw Montgomery play for the U13A cricket side and captain the U13A rugby team. Montgomery doesn’t tell any remarkable junior-school stories either. He missed the normality of home life and of doing things without constant supervision. But in time, he would learn to miss SACS more than Namibia, especially as he prospered in his rugby and water polo, and most holidays were spent on tour with the rugby team.
Montgomery calls himself ‘a boy in blue and white for life’. He has played professional rugby in Wales and France and spent two years playing for the Sharks, in KwaZulu-Natal, on his return to South Africa in 2005. But in his heart, the only rugby home he knows is in the suburb of Newlands.
Montgomery is the only SACS Bok Test player since Cecil Moss played in 1948. The tradition Montgomery refers to was born when SACS, then the South African College (SAC), played the first-ever match at Newlands against Bishops. The 2nd XVs had the honour and the second match, between the 1st XVs, followed. SACS also gave Western Province their blue and white hoops, a playing strip they had gained by default and not design.
Sir Henry Juta, in the history of SACS, is quoted as saying that SACS’ players initially turned out in whatever each man fancied or possessed, but when they played Bishops, who always dress in dark blue, this prompted a change and SACS’ players decided they too wanted a uniformed strip. Rugby historian Paul Dobson writes that SACS’ players had to take what was available from an Adderley Street supplier, Porter Hodgson’s. The only jerseys he had in stock, in two sizes, were those with blue and white hoops and they became SACS’ official colours. Western Province, winners of the Currie Cup in 1892, wore SACS jerseys because their captain Ben Duff was a SACS man and they have worn the blue and white hoops ever since.
When Montgomery was at school, he was taught about those who helped shape the tradition of SACS and of the exploits of those who would play for South Africa in various sports. Among the famous stories is that of Billy Millar, who survived typhoid fever as a baby, went to SAC and ran away at 16 to join the Cycling Corps in the Anglo-Boer War. He nearly lost an arm and to strengthen himself, took up boxing and walking and became the Cape Colony amateur heavyweight champion. Millar played for South Africa in 1906. Tom Hepburn is another famous name because he kicked the conversion in South Africa’s first-ever Test win in 1891.
But the most remarkable story of SACS rugby is that after producing the first Springbok selection in 1891, when Ben Duff was alphabetically listed as the first South African national team player against the British Isles, the school would 117 years later produce the first Springbok to win 100 Test caps in Percival Montgomery.
– This is an edited extract from Monty by Mark Keohane