Few South African rugby players have attained such lofty status that their full names aren’t required to know who they are. Joost‚ Victor and Schalk are three. And Chester.
Chester Williams‚ who died on Friday after suffering a heart attack in his Cape Town home following a gym session‚ was one of the post-Apartheid era greats.
His Test numbers are good‚ as 14 tries in 27 Tests‚ including a 1995 World Cup winners’ medal and a 1998 Tri-Nations title‚ suggests‚ but he was so much more than a mere statistic. His greatness came from breaking barriers.
Williams‚ 49‚ was an icon‚ an inspiration and a nation-builder. His presence in the Bok team allowed other black players to dream about representing South Africa in those early post-Apartheid years. He was the embodiment of hope for so many marginalised rugby players and a player who broke down barriers.
Those resistant to change couldn’t help but like‚ and eventually adore‚ the man from a modest‚ God-fearing upbringing in Paarl.
His determination‚ skill‚ ability and above all charm and class won over many conservatives who still believed the Springboks were the exclusive reserve of white players. Williams’s infectious smile could light up a room and thaw the most hardened conservative heart.
He became known as the ‘Black Pearl’ and at one stage a marketing person even suggested changing Newlands’ name to ‘Chesterfield’‚ such was his fame.
Having grown up in a rugby family it was inevitable that the sport would play some part in his adult life.
His father and uncle Adam played for the Proteas – representative of the SA Rugby Football Federation in racially-segregated rugby. Another uncle‚ Randell‚ played SA Schools.
Chester Williams’s uncle Avril was the second black man to play for the Springboks when he featured against England in 1984. Chester would follow those footsteps against Argentina in 1993.
He attended Klein Nederberg School in Paarl and in 1988 was included in the WP League Craven Week team that also featured future Bok Tinus Linee.
That team beat the mighty Free State of Ruben Kruger and Pieter Muller in the opening match of the week and although Williams wasn’t chosen for SA Schools‚ his performances gained attention.
After school he made his way through the ranks at WP‚ debuting in the early 1990s and touring with the Boks for the first time to Australia in 1993. Although he didn’t play a Test on that trip he was primed and ready for the moment‚ which eventually came later that year against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Williams scored the first of his 14 Test tries as the Boks won 52-23 and was chosen as the SA Player of the Year despite being overlooked for the Test team against the world champion Wallabies.
A small man‚ even by the standards of rugby in the 1990s‚ Williams always played with courage and skill and was a tireless worker and a magnificent fighter.
Perhaps it was from his gastric problems when he was a baby‚ which saw him spend many months in the Red Cross hospital‚ that Williams learned to fight for everything. Whatever it was‚ he had that ability to put in the extra hours that separate the great players from the good.
The 1995 World Cup was the pinnacle of his and many other careers but no-one carried as much pressure as Chester.
The marketing machine had fairly or unfairly decided that Williams‚ as the only non-white player in the squad‚ would be the face of the team.
Williams was uncomfortable in the situation given his personality‚ which disliked the limelight. He had also been a sergeant in the army at a transitional time in the country’s history‚ so there was a degree of awkwardness about the situation.
A knee injury nearly scuppered Williams’s World Cup participation and the dreams of the marketers. But he was later included when fit after Pieter Hendricks was suspended.
Williams immediately made an impact by scoring four tries against Samoa in the quarterfinal at Ellis Park‚ which despite being in the Bok team for 18 months was a watershed moment.
“Whatever doubts I may have had about myself or the rest of the team‚ or anybody else might have had about me‚ disappeared that day – simple as that‚” Williams told author John Carlin for the book ‘Playing the Enemy’‚ on which Clint Eastwood’s movie ‘Invictus’ was based.
“I got big support from Francois [Pienaar] and Morné [du Plessis] and from now on I was‚ in the eyes of everybody‚ a fully accepted and respected team member. The whole story turned that day. The fact that I wasn’t white was now completely irrelevant.”
Williams would go on to play Test rugby on and off for five more years after two knee injuries cost him nearly three seasons of rugby as well as some pace.
He managed to win the 1999 Currie Cup with the Golden Lions but called time on his career in 2000.
After rugby Williams turned to coaching but struggled at the elite level‚ which included one season as Cats head coach in 2005. They won only one game.
He coached the SA Sevens team between 2001 and 2003 and captured a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2002.
Latterly he guided the University of the Western Cape to the Varsity Shield title in 2017 while also establishing the Chester Williams Foundation‚ which helps children with education‚ health and social development.
In a new financial venture‚ he launched two beers only last week‚ called Chester’s Lager and Chester’s IPA‚ which were being sold in a leading liquor outlet. Some of the proceeds of that venture were earmarked for the foundation.
Chester married Maria Robson in 2002 and the couple had twins‚ Chloe and Matthew‚ who are aged 15. Maria also has a son from a previous relationship‚ Ryan‚ whom Chester loved like his own.
A close friend said that the couple “were still madly in love”.