Cape Town – You seldom had to make an appointment to chat to Chester Williams, a humble hero of South African rugby.
The medium-built man with a dazzlingly broad, no-agendas smile was always receptive to an unscheduled call; near-unfailingly courteous and forthcoming to journalists.
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The last time I chatted to the now late Springbok icon, face to face, was under spontaneous circumstances, too: I simply bumped into him while soaking in the atmosphere in front of a stand during a break in play at the Dubai Sevens of 2014.
He was wearing a shirt sporting the Saudi Arabian rugby logo, in his capacity as a key international figure aiding the launch of a league in that country: beyond his playing days, Williams had contributed fulsomely to development of his treasured oval-ball game in such hitherto unfashionable countries as Uganda, Romania and Tunisia, as well as at multiple coaching levels within his own, established superpower nation.
Needless to say, he was more than happy to offer his thoughts at short notice on then-rising star Cheslin Kolbe … very much a man of the moment in the Test landscape and in consistently dynamic, try-gobbling mode for the Boks in the lead-up to RWC 2019.
Kolbe was representing the SA Sevens at that Dubai leg of the World Series, which they would go on to win.
Williams, a 27-cap Springbok (1993-2000) and leading poster-figure of the unforgettable 1995 World Cup conquest, cautioned against the particularly diminutive Kolbe being “bulked up” too excessively for the more physically taxing demands of fifteens as it might impact on his explosive qualities.
Perhaps a view he’d have retained today, “Chessie” also said with some conviction that he felt Kolbe’s best station was fullback: “He might get too isolated at times on the wing.”
In a bleak end to an already extraordinarily grim general week in South Africa, Williams died suddenly of a heart attack on Friday, aged 49, so he will never get to know whether Kolbe, now a 10-cap Bok and also hailing from the Western Cape, indeed has a crack one day in the No 15 jersey for green-and-gold purposes. (At 25, and Willie le Roux no longer a spring chicken, time seems on his side?).
More than anything else, Paarl-born Chester Mornay Williams will be remembered for his poignant -- utterly bloody imperative, to be frank – presence as the lone black member of the otherwise still lilywhite Springbok team and broader squad who clinched the Webb Ellis Cup in 1995, a tender year and a bit after the establishment of full democratic governance in South Africa.
It is a sobering thought that he so nearly didn’t become an inspiration and a doyen, on that loftiest stage, to millions of compatriots because injury had ruled him out of the earliest part of the tournament and it required fate to intervene for his so gladdening reinstallation ahead of the knockout phase.
Pieter Hendriks was suspended for his foul-play role – albeit among many fist-wielders -- in the Boet Erasmus Stadium barney against minnows Canada, facilitating a fit-again Williams to slot back into the mix at the pivotal business end.
The returnee duly made one of the most sensational comebacks imaginable: dodging the frequently high, wild challenges of the earthy Samoans (they’d have kept then-absent official TMOs busy that day at Ellis Park), Williams revealed the very best in his splendid finishing powers to dot four tries in the 42-14 quarter-final romp.
A Bok individual record at the time, it stood for more than two years until Pieter Rossouw repeated the trick against France; several other quartet-scoring customers followed until Tonderai Chavhanga eclipsed them all with his six against Uruguay in 2005.
But boy, was Chester back with a bang then … a phenomenon that would happily stay uninterrupted through the semi-final nail-biter against France (more like a water-polo tussle in Durban), and to the immortal, sun-baked showpiece against the All Blacks back in Johannesburg.
Its advent delayed, Williams – then a 24-year-old, and before serious knee injuries would significantly impede the back end of his international career – nevertheless blossomed into the face of the tournament, in so many goose-pimply respects.
Statistical confirmation was proving elusive at the time of writing, but I have an enormously strong feeling – and despite the misty perils of the passing of a further 31-odd years -- that I was present for what would have represented Williams’ first-class rugby debut … as a raw but already much-talked about (especially on Boland streets) 18-year-old in 1988.
It was for WP League, the team that had its roots in the old WP Rugby Federation for predominantly Coloured players taking part in structures aligned to the Danie Craven-led national umbrella body SARFU, albeit doggedly opposed in that late apartheid-era environment by the non-racial SARU.
Enormously well-supported, whether at the Faure Street Stadium in Paarl, nearby Dal Josafat or elsewhere around Cape Town/Winelands, they played in strong Currie Cup B-Section or Sport Pienaar competitions and against the likes of South
Western Districts, Far North or Northern Free State, often running the platteland sides, with their brawnier but less creative arsenals, off their feet with their blistering, almost ceaselessly 15-man style of play.
It was in that spirit, and alongside such twinkle-toed figures as Russel Roux, Quinton Daniels, Wilf Cupido, Kelvin Davids and Renaldo Otto, that Williams began – not without immediate confidence, or eye-catching application -- his senior development as a rugby player.
I will remember him in a way some might consider strange: in short, I felt he was superlative at relatively little, yet excellent at everything.
While speedy at full tilt, he didn’t have quite Bryan Habana’s explosiveness (at least in his maximum majesty) straight from the blocks, Breyton Paulse’s ability to spark virtuoso chaos in enemy defences from a long way back on the park, or JP Pietersen’s penchant for busting out of tackles through use of his strong and long thighs.
He didn’t have Carel du Plessis’s so noticeably elegant swerve, either … though he had an audacious goosestep to occasionally baffle and evade approaching tacklers.
With Williams, it was more about the consistently high-delivery, all-round package he offered as a wing: cleverness in tight space, a natural hunger for the try-line when in pretty close proximity to it, great linking and support play, and just as importantly a sterling devotion to defence (and its positioning needs), despite a moderate physique.
At the risk of accusations of tameness, or even anti-climax: I will remember Chester Williams first and foremost, as “celebrities” go, as a truly nice, even-tempered man (he was, as least folklore has it, the lone Bok who stood and chatted quite amicably to a similarly bemused Argentinean opponent while the other 28 combatants thumped the lights out of each other in the infamous 1993 tour dirt-track fixture “Battle of Tucuman”).
Think about it: in the current RSA climate, that status should be deemed fairly treasured, shouldn’t it?
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