Chester Williams: pioneer of excellence

The late Springbok rugby wing's legacy needs to be sustained, and the hope that he represented is perhaps more critical than ever.

Screengrab from Youtube.

It’s November 26th, 1994. At Cardiff Arms Park, South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, are playing Wales and a lineout move leaves Springbok flyhalf Hennie le Roux isolated in the midfield. A ruck forms with South Africa on the backfoot.

The familiar voice of television rugby commentator Hugh Bladen blares: “They need to just get it loose now. They need to loosen it up.”

The ball emerges for the dangerous young South African scrumhalf, Joost van der Westhuizen, who snipes through a half gap.

Bladen’s excitement rises: “This is van der Westhuizen. And he’s got a gap. Look how he goes through it.”

The Springbok backs are suddenly flying, shifting the ball towards the left wing where Chester Williams, South Africa’s lone Black player, is sprinting upfield in support.

Bladen’s pitch jumps again: “Oh look at this, Andre Joubert.”

Bok fullback Joubert sends a final pass to Williams who receives the ball just inside the touchline, with 15 meters to the tryline, and with both Welsh halfbacks bearing down on him.

Bladen can hardly contain himself.

“Chester Williams!” he shouts, as Williams bounces off the attempted tackle of the Welsh flyhalf.

“Chester Williams!” Bladen bellows again as Chester races against the opposition number 9. Williams shifts into fifth gear and dives, with arms outstretched, towards the try line.

“Chester Williams!”

“Chester Williams makes the try!”

A quarter century ago, major rugby test matches were far rarer than today, and each result perhaps more cherished. The Wales test took place only two years after South Africa’s readmission into international competitions. The Springboks had been isolated by the international community, viewed rightly as a symbol of the shame tied up in apartheid’s cultural machinery. The country itself had just emerged from its first democratic election. With a representative government and a progressive constitution promising socio-economic justice and dignity for all, South Africa was preparing to host the world for the first time at the following year’s Rugby World Cup. It was also to be the first time that the Springboks could compete at the tournament, which had its inception in 1987.

Chester Williams was democratic South Africa’s first Black Springbok. Inevitably, with the world soon to be watching, he would be presented as a bridge to a new existence for South Africans.

As he rose from his diving match winner against Wales, Chester Williams raised his arms in victory. His all white teammates ran over to congratulate him.

“For me, Chester is a pioneer of greatness,” said Gio Aplon, a former Springbok outside back:

For us. For a young boy that grew up in Hawston. A coloured boy, from a small community, our hero was Chester. We could relate to him. He made a dream possible for us. We could see him playing on TV and that made everything for us, playing for the Springboks, a reality.

Another coloured Bok flyer, Dilyn Leyds, echoes Aplon’s sentiments. “All I wanted to do, playing rugby in the streets with mates, was be like Chester Williams. He was the guy that made it possible, that made us all believe that we can do that.”

In Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood attempt at capturing John Carlin’s telling of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Chester is offensively and baselessly reduced to an unthinking rugby playing machine, separated from any sense of the world off the field. In one of the only speaking lines given to the character, the on-film Chester is asked his views during a team meeting. The players are debating whether the Springboks should take the time to attend a coaching clinic for a community of kids in an informal settlement. A fictionalized Afrikaner Springbok lock asks Chester to share his perspective with the team. The screenplay captures the scene:

Springbok Lock: What do you think about this, Chester?

All eyes on Chester, as if the poor guy is a magic guide to a world they barely understand.

Chester Williams: I try not to think. It interferes with my rugby.

As with many of the absurdities unnecessarily written into Invictus the film, Carlin’s wonderful book, originally published as Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, makes no mention of this conversation. And there is no reason to think it happened.

In fact, contrary to Eastwood’s bizarre depiction, a young Chester Williams was acutely aware of what he meant to the country, and took his role seriously. In the lead up to the 1995 World Cup, the 24 year-old told a journalist, “I am representing my country. Being the only coloured as well, [I am] helping my community, to tell them that they must believe that they can also get into the Springbok side, no matter their skin or their colour.”

Young as he was, Chester understood that future Aplons, Leyds, and countless others had their aspirational eyes on him. “All I wanted,” he told the Economist in 2019, “was an opportunity so that I can prove to the world that black people can also play rugby.”

Former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar recalled how it was Chester who reported to the World Cup team on the impact they were having. Drafted back into the squad just before the quarterfinals, after having been omitted from the pool stages due to injury, Chester Williams had a unique perspective from outside the camp.

It is true that Chester felt discomfort at his own commodification as the poster-boy of all black South Africans in 1995, and reflected on the marketization of his image to promote a change in the country that had a long way to go in substance. Still, he recognized the potential impact he could make as a role model. While reserved by disposition, Chester did not shy away.

It’s June 24th, 1995. The Springboks play the New Zealand All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. South Africa looked formidable coming into the game. Two weeks earlier, Chester Williams had scored a South African record breaking four tries against Western Samoa in the quarterfinal. For their part, the All Blacks had destroyed everyone on the road to the final, culminating in a 49-25 demolition of England in the semifinal in Cape Town. Their own incredible number 11, Jonah Lomu, had emerged through the tournament as a combination of speed, strength and skill unlike perhaps any other in the game’s history. Like Chester in the quarters, Lomu had scored his own now famous four tries in New Zealand’s semifinal. He had seven in the tournament overall—a record at the time and one that would be eclipsed by the eight tries he would score at the next Rugby World Cup in 1999. No team had figured out how to keep New Zealand, and Lomu in particular, at bay.

New Zealand lead South Africa 6-3 with around 15 minutes gone. It’s an All Black lineout just inside the Bok half of the field. A prime attacking opportunity. New Zealand move the ball wide quickly. Center Walter Little throws a skip pass out to his right wing, Chester Williams’ opposite for the day, the brilliant runner Jeff Wilson. As Wilson attempts to step inside, Chester rushes him. Dropping low for a thigh level tackle, Chester lifts Wilson off the ground, tipping him 90 degrees to the left, and unceremoniously dumping him back into the turf. In 2019, it is likely a red card tackle. In 1995, it was a legal and laudable cruncher. Wilson left the field later in the game, seemingly injured.

After an exchange of place kicking between flyhalfs Joel Stransky and Andrew Mehrtens, scores are tied at 9-9. The Springboks have a lineout, but the All Blacks steal it. With New Zealand shifting the ball from the right side of the field to their left, the Springboks are at their most vulnerable. They were set up to attack from their own line-out ball, and have no structured defensive line. As Jonah Lomu shifts in off his left wing for a cleverly timed switch call, he finds a sliver of space between Springbok flanker Ruben Kruger and inside center Hennie Le Roux. But Chester Williams has read the move. Sweeping from over on his left wing to the middle of the field, hanging just behind the line of Kruger and Le Roux, Chester meets Jonah. Dropping again into a copybook tackle, Chester does what no Englishman could do one week before. He brings Lomu down clean.

The Rugby World Cup final has gone, for the first time, to extra time. The score is 9-9. New Zealand scrumhalf Graeme Bachop spirals a kick deep into the left pocket of South Africa’s territory. Chester Williams sprints to field it, racing against Marc Ellis (who had replaced Wilson, and had famously scored six tries against Japan in the tournament’s pool stage). Under the pressure of a lifetime, Williams beats Ellis to the ball, deftly collects a difficult bounce, and introduces Ellis to the ground with a strong hand-off. To the resounding roar of the crowd, Chester Williams sprints the ball out of South Africa’s 22 meter area and into safety. The Springboks go on the win the match in extra-time with Stransky’s perfect late drop-goal constituting the difference on the scoreboard.

Chester Williams had planned to attend this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, where his new branded commemorative beers would be available. On Friday, September 6, he tweeted a video showing himself swinging boxes of lager with workers at the Goodfellows warehouse in Cape Town. He looked fit and strong, and handled the boxes as well as he had collected that bobbling ball under the impending shadow of Marc Ellis those 24 years earlier. Chester’s tweet told fans that he would be watching that afternoon’s Springbok test match at the Tyger’s Milk restaurant in Durbanville, a suburb north of Cape Town. Later that afternoon, the country learned that Chester Williams had died from a heart attack. He was 49.

Chester struck fans as a cerebral and technical genius on the field, and a kind, warm and humble hero off it. That combination endeared him to the world. His life inspired a generation of black and coloured rugby fans. That is his enduring legacy. But he also reached beyond racial divides. As an eight year-old middle class white kid watching the Rugby World Cup, I also wanted to be like Chester Williams. He was the Springboks’ and Western Province’s, star. The try scorer, the speedster. I remember noticing him at Newlands Stadium when I went to my first match in 1994, and I remember the special issue of Chester Magazine that I cut pictures from to paste around my bedroom walls in 1995. I would play out Springboks vs. New Zealand rugby matches by myself, imagining the remaining 29 players, and always scoring in the corner as Chester Williams. I fell in love with Chester first, and then rugby. Heroes humanize, and I suspect that Chester Williams helped develop the humanity in some amongst a generation of white children who may have been otherwise shielded from developing admiration, and adoration, for black heroes.

At the time of writing, the Springbok team was preparing to contest its first Rugby World Cup final since 2007. Chester’s number 11 jersey was likely to be worn by the brilliant and in-form Makazole Mapimpi. Mapimpi is a Black South African whose story demonstrates both the reality of an unfulfilled societal transformation (he walked 10km a day to attend an under-resourced school in the rural Eastern Cape) and the continued promise of a new dawn. The team is more representative than ever, but remains shrouded in the continued class and race challenges of South Africa. Mapimpi himself recently took to social media to confirm that a short online clip of post-match celebrations by a group of his white teammates had been misinterpreted as an act of racism against him, and to assure supporters that the team is unified. But despite the “Bomb Squad” debacle having been largely cleared up, Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth remains under investigation for his alleged involvement in a racist and violent incident leading up to the World Cup. While we can hope that this team has, at an internal level, bonded together, it would be naïve to think that it could exist in a vacuum unaffected by prejudices and divisions that continue to permeate our country. That’s why Chester’s legacy needs to be sustained, and the hope that he represented is perhaps more critical than ever.

It’s July 20th, 2019. The Springboks have just defeated Wales at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. Debutant scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies scored a brace of tries. Jantjies is a coloured South African, born in the small town of Kylemore, some 20km from Chester William’s childhood hometown of Paarl. In 2017 he had been coached by Chester while playing for the University of the Western Cape.

Following the win, Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first Black captain, jogs over towards the section of the crowd occupied in large part by the Gwijo squad – an ever-growing legion of Springbok fans, led by black South Africans, who bring African songs of struggle and victory to the sport of rugby. Along with teammates Mapimpi, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Sbu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Lizo Gqoboka and Bok backline coach Mzwandile Stick, Siya joins the Gwijo squad in song. To Nyakane’s left stands Loodt de Jager, one of the Springbok’s four white Afrikaner locks and the lone white player to head over to the Gwijo squad. He (probably) doesn’t know the words of the song, but he claps along.

Further Reading