Mark Keohane, in a new series, selects his best Springboks since 1992 and the World XV he would pick to front this green machine in his dream Test match. Today’s pick is at No 15.
I’ve reported on the Springboks since their international return from isolation in 1992. I have been privileged to travel to every rugby-playing country and write about the Springboks. I’ve met some amazing individuals from within the Springboks and from within the opposition. In the next 15 days, one position a day, I am going to select the best Springboks 15 that I watched play and the best World XV to have played Test rugby in the period between the Springboks first Test back against the All Blacks in 1992 to the World Cup final victory against England in Tokyo, Japan, 2019.
My final day selection will reveal my eight-strong substitution bench for each team and who will referee what I would describe as the greatest match I would ever get to see. I will also pick my favourite South African Test venue and my favourite international rugby ground experience for the home and away fantasy Tests.
Up front, here is my disclaimer: My selections are my selections and they are based on being in that privileged position that rugby writing is – and has been – my profession for the last 30 years. I have often been asked who and why I considered the best, or who made the greatest impression on me.
So, here it is, starting with No 15.
Andre Joubert, Percy Montgomery and Willie le Roux are Springbok fullback World Cup winners. That alone puts them in an elite category, although winning a World Cup isn’t necessarily the yardstick that I am using to select my best players in each position. An example being the All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens. He would rate highly in anyone’s top 10 international flyhalves, but Stephen Donald wouldn’t make anyone’s top 50. Donald is a World Cup winner; Mehrtens isn’t.
In the South African context Joubert and Montgomery stand above all else. Willie le Roux has been a mixture of brilliant and absent in the last five years and in another era, with a different coach, Gio Aplon, would have played many more Tests. Aplon was an exceptional player and his longevity, to still be excelling in Japan’s Top League at 37 years-old, is a testament to his qualities.
Conrad Jantjes was another with immense potential but he unfortunately played in an international era where Montgomery was entrenched as the No 1 fullback. Jantjes would play Test rugby as a winger/fullback and his career was cut short because of a horrific leg injury.
Frans Steyn, had he specialized exclusively in being a fullback, would be a contender but I believe No 12 is his best position and the one in which he would have consistently been an international standout had his Test career not stalled for five years because of club versus country issues.
In the early 1990s, Gavin Johnson also dazzled, but it was all to brief at international level.
Comparing Joubert and Montgomery is, for me, like comparing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. One has more poetry; the other more mongrel and tenacity in approach, but the two, in terms of success and menace, are close to being inseparable and there is a part that wouldn’t even want to compare them. I’d much rather appreciate their differences and contrasts.
Ditto Joubert and Montgomery and perhaps this is best summed up by one glorious moment involving both players in a Test match for the Springboks. Joubert started at fullback against Australia at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in 1997 and Montgomery was at outside centre. The Springboks crushed the Wallabies 61-22 and Montgomery sizzled with his pace at outside centre, memorably rounding his Australian opposite Jason Little on way to a spectacular solo-run try. Little had questioned who Montgomery even was before the Test and Monty did tell me that when he jogged back from scoring the try, he did remind the Australian of the name of the Springbok who had just blitzed him. Montgomery, when I wrote his life story, reflected on that moment and said it was the only time he ever acted on the urge to let an opponent know what he thought of him.
Joubert was the more natural runner from the back and certainly the more flamboyant, but he also played nearly all of his career in a non-professional environment. His last two years as a Springbok, 1996 and 1997, overlapped with the game’s first two years as a professional sport.
Joubert and Montgomery both played World Cup finals with injury. Joubert played in the 1995 World Cup final 15-12 win against the All Blacks with a fractured wrist, an injury sustained in the play-offs. His wrist was in a specially designed cast for the final. Montgomery tore knee ligaments 35 minutes into the final and would play out the entire match in the Boks’ 15-6 win against England and also add two successful penalty goals either side of half-time.
Montgomery’s career highlights included scoring 105 points at the 2007 World Cup in France and being the first Springbok to play 100 Tests. He missed three years of Test rugby between 2001 and 2003 when playing for Welsh club Newport, although he credits the three-year experience of playing in the northern hemisphere as transforming his approach to professionalism and adding consistency to his goalkicking and all-round performances.
My Springbok starting fullback for my ultimate World XV match-up is Percy Montgomery.
His opposite number is All Black Christian Cullen.
Wow, Cullen in his prime, before his knees went at a very young age, was almost indescribable with the ball in his hands. His angle of running, his support lines and his swerve when running could also explain why his knees went at such a young age. You only have to do a ‘best of’ highlights of Cullen in Test rugby and Super Rugby to have an appreciation of what I mostly got to see live at the ground. No All Black has scored more tries against the Springboks than Cullen’s 10.
I have watched some outstanding fullbacks play against the Springboks since 1992. Australians Matt Burke, Chris Latham and Israel Folau are world class players, who would make many a fans’ World XV, the All Blacks have been blessed with Mils Muliaina, Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett, Wales have had Gareth Thomas and Leigh Halfpenny and Ireland had Rob Kearney. No Italian, French, Scottish, English, Argentinean, Samoan, Tonga or Fijian fullback made as telling an impact on me as those mentioned players.