How SA failed the legend that is Chester Williams

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Cape Town – One of the most poignant moments at the memorial for rugby hero Chester Williams at UWC this week was when his widow, Maria, spoke about how he struggled to find employment in South Africa, how doors were closed in his face and he had to travel abroad, leading to long separations from his young family.

At that point it seemed like his 1995 Rugby World Cup heroics – he was a member of the winning South African team and scored several tries, including four against Samoa – were all but forgotten.

Maria bemoaned the fact that Chester was considered good enough to coach at UWC, but not at a national level. Chester had, of course, coached at a provincial level and was also one of the first coaches of the South African Sevens team. But that seems such a long time ago. After that, he seemed to have fallen out of favour with the rugby establishment, leading him to look for greener pastures overseas.

It was a tough period for Chester and, while he was trying to secure rugby-related work, he dabbled in some business ventures, not all of which were successful.

I remember conversations with him about how he struggled to ensure there was food on his family’s table.

In many ways, UWC and the good work he did there revived Chester’s profile, allowing him to once again become a national hero just before he passed away. Under his tutelage, UWC’s rugby team became the first previously disadvantaged university to play in the prestigious Varsity Cup.

They also got their first Springbok and Sevens Springbok in Herschel Jantjies and Kurt-Lee Arendse. These are great achievements for any coach.

There are many similarities between Chester’s story and that of the man who coached UWC before him, Peter de Villiers. De Villiers was one of the rising stars of South Africa’s coaching establishment, having taken several age-level national teams to international glory. His record as coach of the Springboks remains among the best.

But his Springbok team failed against Australia at the quarter-final stage of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, albeit in a game involving dubious refereeing. De Villiers was out very quickly and struggled to coach again in South Africa after that. None of the provincial teams would take him and he ended up at UWC, where he stayed until he got an opportunity to coach the Zimbabwean national team.

Recently, De Villiers was short-listed for the coaching position at the Southern Kings, the Port Elizabeth-based provincial franchise, but then some people leaked information that he had been disqualified because he did not have the necessary coaching qualifications, which he disproved very quickly. At the time of writing, months later, there has been no resolution of who will get the Kings’ coaching position.

Chester’s story makes me think of two things: how much do we acknowledge and support those who bring us so much happiness, joy and pride on the sports fields and even in the cultural world; and what do young people, who only know sport, do after their short careers? 

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Maria Williams and children at the memorial service of the late Springbok legend Chester Williams at the Boland Cricket Stadium in Paarl on Thursday evening. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

How do we help them to cope with life after sport?

But it also makes me think about the people who turned their backs on people like Chester and De Villiers, when they could have contributed to sport and the much-needed transformation project in our country. Some of them have been praising Chester.

It is appropriate that Chester’s funeral will be at Newlands Rugby Stadium today and that he will be receiving a national funeral. 

He was a national hero, after all, and Newlands is where it all started. 

We should use this opportunity to think about how we treat our sporting heroes – and our musicians and other cultural workers.

* Fisher is chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher

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