Thursday 17 October 2019

Obituary: Chester Williams

Rugby World Cup winner who became role model for black players in South Africa

Icon: Chester Williams
Icon: Chester Williams

Chester Williams, who has died of a heart attack aged 49, was the only non-white player in the South African squad that won a historic victory over New Zealand in the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

In emotional scenes at Ellis Park in Johannesburg watched around the world, President Nelson Mandela, sporting a Springbok cap and jersey, presented the Webb Ellis trophy to his countrymen.

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It was South Africa's first appearance at a Rugby World Cup, having been banned from the two previous tournaments because of apartheid.

Williams, who had first appeared for the Springboks in 1993, withdrew from the original squad because of injury. He was recalled for the quarter-final, scoring four tries against Western Samoa, a national record. He held his place for the semi-final and final, won 15-12 after a drop goal in extra time by Joel Stransky.

This highly symbolic victory for a post-apartheid South Africa, the so-called Rainbow Nation, was celebrated in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus, in which Williams was played by McNeil Hendricks, himself a former Springbok wing three-quarter. Mandela was played by Morgan Freeman and the South African captain, Francois Pienaar, by Matt Damon. Williams coached them on the finer points of rugby.

In his autobiography, published after he retired in 2002, Williams challenged the portrait of racial unity around the World Cup squad, saying he had been shunned by white players and given racist nicknames by James Small, who played on the other wing.

Chester Mornay Williams was born on August 8, 1970 at Paarl in the Western Cape into a rugby-playing family. His father's brother, Avril Williams, was the second non-white to win a Springbok cap in the 1980s, following Errol Tobias.

He played 63 times for Western Province between 1991 and 1998, and then joined the Golden Lions, helping them to win the Currie Cup, South Africa's main domestic competition, in 1999. He was a short but powerful figure with a rapid turn of speed.

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His first game for the Springboks was in Buenos Aires, where Argentina were beaten 52-23, Williams scoring a try. He went on to win 27 caps, scoring 14 tries before being dogged by knee injuries. His international career ended in Cardiff in 2000, South Africa beating Wales 23-13.

He coached the South African Sevens, leading them to a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and to second place in the World Sevens series in 2003.

Williams was considered for the role of Springbok coach when vacancies arose in 2004 and 2008, but his lack of top-level coaching experience in the 15-man game told against him.

Instead he coached South Africa's development squad, then went abroad to coach national teams in Uganda and Tunisia.

His final role was as coach to the University of the Western Cape, winning the Varsity Shield in 2017.

Williams became a hero to South African sports fans of all hues, carrying the torch for his country at two Olympic Games, in Athens in 2004 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

"Chessie was an icon," said Breyton Paulse, another black wing capped 64 times. "He is the reason so many players of colour can today walk into the Springbok team."

President Cyril Ramaphosa said: "Chester Williams's death leaves all South Africans bereft of a rugby hero and national role model."

Williams, who died on September 6, is survived by his wife Maria and by a son and a daughter.

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