Obituary: Chester Williams, rugby player who symbolised a changing South Africa

Chester Williams, rugby player. Born: 8 August 1970 in Paarl, South Africa. Died: 
6 September 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa
(Picture: Getty Images)(Picture: Getty Images)
(Picture: Getty Images)

Chester Williams, the only black player on South Africa’s famed 1995 Rugby World Cup winning team, died on Friday of a heart attack. He was 49.

SA Rugby announced Williams’ death and said he died in Cape Town, where he had been coaching a university team.

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Williams became one of the faces of the new South Africa when the Springboks won the World Cup on home soil in front of Nelson Mandela. It was just a year after apartheid officially ended and South Africa elected Mandela as president in its first all-race elections.

Williams’ presence in the Springboks team, which had been all-white for years during the apartheid regime, underlined South Africa’s transformation.

Williams had nearly not played in the World Cup, having initially been left out of the squad because of injury. He recovered in time for the quarter finals and scored four tries in the quarter final win over Western Samoa.

“His performances at the World Cup in 1995, as a snapshot of his Springbok career, will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of our rugby public,” SA Rugby president Mark Alexander said.

A fast, skilful and clever wing, Williams played 27 tests for South Africa from 1993 to 2000 and scored 14 test tries. He was South African rugby’s player of the year in 1994, the season before the World Cup.

Williams was not the first black player to play for the Springboks but his presence in ‘95 gave the tournament a fairy-tale feel for the host country.

“Desperately saddened to hear of Chester Williams’s passing,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont wrote on Twitter. “A symbol of the rainbow nation, Chester’s name will forever epitomise a remarkable and transformational Rugby World Cup 1995. We’ve lost a great, engaging man far too soon.”

Williams’ death came two months after James Small, South Africa’s other wing in the ‘95 final against New Zealand, also died of a heart attack.

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“Another huge blow to the rugby family and our country, with the passing of Chester Williams,” Williams’ World Cup teammate, Kobus Wiese, wrote. “Talented player, family man, loved by the community, our hearts are bleeding.”

New Zealand, which lost the 1995 final to South Africa 15-12 in extra time, also tweeted its condolences.

“Chester was an iconic figure in world rugby, a fierce rival of the All Blacks on the field and a friend off it. You will be missed. Rest in love, Chester,” the All Blacks said on their Twitter account.