As we digest the loss of Chester Williams, taken at just 49 by a heart attack, we appreciate the massive impact he had on the evolution of the Springboks from an understandably hated entity to a brand that is embraced by all South Africans.
In the dark days of the ‘80s, Errol Tobias became the first black player to play for the Springboks only for isolation to temper his role in breaking down barriers, and it was Williams who became the first genuine torch bearer for transformation in South African rugby when he donned the No 11 jersey in 1993.
Williams was immediately a world-class finisher on the left wing and his rich understanding of the game made him as reliable on defence as he was lethal on attack.
“The Black Pearl,” as he was soon nicknamed, displayed his attacking capabilities by scoring a try on debut and he went on to score a phenomenal 13 tries in his first 16 Tests, in the process obliterating any notion that he was in the team on any other basis than merit.
Chester single-handedly changed the perception of rugby being a ‘white man’s game’ and became an icon and inspiration to rugby players in the rural areas of South Africa.
After missing the pool stages of the 1995 World Cup because of injury, Chester was dramatically called up in place of Pieter Hendricks, who had been banned for the remainder of the competition for his part in the brawl between the Boks and Canada in Port Elizabeth.
Williams’ contribution to the Boks cause was immediate and seismic. He scored four tries in the quarter-final clash against Western Samoa and he went on to play in the semi-final against France and the historic final against New Zealand.
Knee injuries hampered his international career in 1996 and 1997 but Williams worked himself back into the Springbok squad in 1998 and played two cameos off the bench in the Boks’ maiden Tri-Nations winning campaign.
He missed the 1999 World Cup but won nine caps in 2000. His last game for the Springboks came in the 23-13 win over Wales in Cardiff on November 26, 2000 and he retired from all forms of rugby a year later.
A former Springbok in both fifteens and Sevens, and a former Springbok Sevens coach, Williams was a true gentleman of the game and was consistently approachable. He was humble from his first day in a Springbok jersey in Buenos Aires in 1993 until his passing.
The abiding memory of Williams for his fans will be that Cheshire cat grin.
Just last week Williams was enthusiastic about his new project – Chester’s Lager, which he had planned to launch at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and he was successfully heading the University of the Western Cape’s sports transition to rugby success as head coach, with the team winning the Varsity Shield in 2017.
Williams played for the Springbok Sevens side from 1993-1998 and then took over the coaching role between 2001 and 2003 where he coached the Bok Sevens to their first Dubai Sevens title.