Chester Williams of Happy Memory
Chester Williams, readily smiling, always polite and friendly, always diffident with his head slightly to one side despite his status as a hero, has died, and for the second time this year there has been an upwelling of emotion in South Africa and beyond at the death of a rugby hero.
He is the fourth of the glorious 1995 World Cup-winning team to die – after flank Ruben Kruger, scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen and his fellow wing and great friend James Small, whose death in July evoked such a great emotional response throughout South Africa. Ruben was 40, Joost 46, James 50 and Chester 49 – all so young, all members of a team which produced the most wonderful event the Rainbow Nation has enjoyed.
Chester was on the left wing in that team on that day at Ellis Park when they beat the All Blacks 15-12 in the World Cup final and the nation danced in the streets in celebration. He certainly played his part in the victory, especially on defence where his intervention saved the Springboks in a match in which there were no tries.
In 1995, Chester was an established Springbok and yet he nearly missed out on the World Cup. He was selected, but in scoring a try against Samoa in a warm-up match at Ellis Park, Chester tore a hamstring and had to withdraw from the squad, his place taken on the left wing by Pieter Hendriks. Chester watched Hendriks score a splendid try in the Springboks victory over the Wallabies at Newlands in the opening match of the World Cup. But for Hendriks disaster struck in that dark match against Canada in Port Elizabeth. First the lights failed; then three players were sent off ten minutes from the end. Afterwards Hendriks was cited and suspended, which opened the way for a recall of Chester Williams, just in time for the quarterfinal against Samoa which Chester celebrated with a Springbok record of four tries in a Test.
The Springboks won the semifinal against France at Kings Park, drenched with rain, and then won the final on that day of rejoicing at Ellis Park with Nelson Mandela to inspire his side in his Springbok jersey with Number 6 on the back, the same number as captain Francois Pienaar’s.
Mandela was introduced to the two teams and when he shook Chester’s hand he said softly: “Chester, go out there and make South Africa proud – and make your people proud.”
Chester did that all right.
In an interview, Dawie Snyman, the multi-talented Springbok and the highly successful coach of Western Province, who had much to do with Chester’s early years in the Western Province team, said of him: “A lovely gentleman, good communicator, exceptionally skilled, big heart, really a team player and a team person par excellence.”
Chester was born in Paarl, a town where rugby is important, the birthplace of many a great rugby player. Chester was born into a remarkable rugby family.
Chester’s father, Wilfred, played for the SA Rugby Football Federation’s national team from 1969 to 1980 in a variety of positions from eighthman to fullback. His father’s brother Avril Williams became a Springbok in 1984, playing on the wing against England in a team which had a magic flyhalf in Errol Tobias. Avril’s younger brother, Randall, had played for the South African Under-18 school team that had toured Wales in 1983. There was also Adam Dombas, Chester’s mother’s brother, who was an outstanding flank for the Federation, captaining them in 1971. The Williams family were keen members of the Albions club in Paarl
Chester had played sport, especially athletics, but when his uncle Avril was selected to play for South Africa, his interest in rugby sharpened. He captained the 1st XV at his school, Klein Nederburg, and in 1988 he went to the Craven Week in Port Elizabeth as a centre in the Western Province League side, a racially mixed team. His fellow centre was Tinus Linee, also of Klein Nederburg, who also went on to play for Western Province and the Stormers. Linee also became a Springbok but also died young – aged just 45 in 2014.
After school Chester had two years in the navy before transferring to the army. He and Uncle Avril played together for Defence, then a strong club in the days of conscription.
Chester was first chosen for Western Province in 1991 and played for them 63 times, including two losing Currie Cup finals. In 1999 he played for the Lions (formerly Transvaal) and the Cats. That year he scored a try when the Lions beat Natal 32-9 the Currie Cup final.
Chester was in his day the Darling of Newlands. In fact, Ronnie Masson, the president of the Western Province RFU, suggested – jokingly – that the name of Newlands be changed to Chesterfield.
Chester made his Test debut against Argentina in 1993, celebrating his selection with a try, and in 1994 he was South Africa’s Player of the Year. In all he wore the Springbok jersey 47 times, including 27 times in Tests. He scored a try in his last Springbok match, when they beat the Barbarians in 2000.
Playing days over, he took to coaching. He coached the Blitzbokke in the Sevens series and at the time of his death was the head coach of the University of the Western Cape.
Chester Mornay Williams was born in Paarl on August 1970, one of five children. He came home from gym on Friday, 6 September 2019, and complained of chest pains. His wife Maria took him to the Panorama Mediclinic where he died at about 18.00.
Chester was married twice, and is survived by his wife Maria, stepson Ryan and younger twins Matthew and Chloe.
Chester made South Africa proud. He also made rugby football proud.