Holders beware Montgomery's blond ambition

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The Independent Online

He has the image of being the pin-up boy of South African rugby, but it is not something that Percy Montgomery either desires or cultivates. He has the blond good looks of a Robert Redford and, a few days ago, Will Greenwood, the former England centre, suggested that to upset Montgomery in the World Cup final all an Englishman would have to do is ruffle the hair of the Springboks' full-back.

"I'll have to put on extra strong gel," Montgomery said yesterday. The fact is he is painfully shy. At a press conference, when the Springboks coach, Jake White, announced an unchanged team to play England, one of South Africa's managers attempted to point Percy in the direction of a scrum of television reporters. He would have nothing to do with it. Some players live for the TV cameras. Not Montgomery.

On Saturday night, he wins a record 94th cap, 11 of which have come in the World Cup. Only the prop forward, Os du Randt, who plays in his 16th World Cup match, has more experience of the tournament in the South African squad.

If England are to nullify the threat of Montgomery, whose goal-kicking in this tournament has been excellent – he kicked seven out of seven against Argentina and is the top points scorer in the competition with 93 – they will have to do a lot more than ruffle his barnet. Montgomery, incidentally, would not have a clue whether he has scored 93 points or 930.

The Springboks destroyed England 36-0 in the pool stage, but Montgomery argues that that match is not only history but irrelevant history. "For a start, Jonny wasn't playing," Montgomery said. "England have got a different team and I expect Jonny will want to dictate the pattern of the game. He has a huge presence."

Montgomery pointed out that World Cups are usually won on goal kicks, but what he did not say is that his strike rate in this competition has been a lot better than Wilkinson's. "I wouldn't say we're the favourites. It's going to be 50-50 on the day. It's always a challenge for the kickers. We will play the same game, but with a few tweaks here and there. I have taken responsibility for the goal-kicking and I'm quite happy with it. I have put a lot of work into the job." Montgomery said he has become accustomed to the Gilbert ball. "In the beginning, I struggled a little bit with it. The aim is to become a perfectionist. There's nothing wrong with the ball other than that it has a slightly smaller sweet spot."

Montgomery has been hitting the sweet spot more regularly than anybody else in the tournament. It was pointed out to him that, when Wilkinson was attempting place kicks against France in the semi-final last weekend, the stand-off said his heart was pounding so strongly the red rose on his jersey was moving to the beat. "Of course you get nervous," Montgomery said. "The day you stop feeling the tension is the day you stop playing."

At the age of 33, Montgomery has been here, there, if not quite everywhere. Born in Namibia, he grew up in Cape Town and lives in Durban, although that will change almost immediately after the end of the World Cup. Montgomery and his family – he has an 11-year-old stepson who plays for the Natal Sharks academy, and a younger daughter – are migrating to Perpignan. Percy playing at Perpignan has become big news in the world of French rugby, bigger certainly than when he left South Africa for Newport in south Wales after failing to make an impression for the Springboks in the series against the Lions in 1997.

Martin Johnson's touring side won the first two Tests of the three-Test series and Montgomery's goal-kicking was flaky. The offer from Newport, who had a few Springbok connections, was like a safe house for Montgomery. He recovered his confidence and rediscovered his game away from the pressure cooker of South Africa.

The other thing about Montgomery, who may or may not play his last Test match tomorrow, is that he is an out-and-out full-back. England and France have both experimented by playing wings or centres at No15 and both soon realised it was a great mistake.

Ten years ago, he was described as "the Maserati of full-backs". His car of choice is a Toyota. Nothing flash. Just reliable.

South Africa team

P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); J P Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), F Steyn (Natal Sharks), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F Du Preez (Blue Bulls); O Du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), C J Van der Linde (Free State), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls). Replacements: J Muller (Natal Sharks); J Du Plessis (Free State); B Du Plessis (Natal Sharks); W Olivier (Blue Bulls); B Skinstad (Natal Sharks); R Pienaar (Natal Sharks); A Pretorius (Natal Sharks).