Cape Town - As news of the death of South African 1995 Rugby World Cup-winner Chester Williams at the age of 49 began to circulate, so the tributes rolled in for a pioneering player whose significance was felt both on and off the field.

"Chester’s name will go down with the greats of South African rugby as a player and for what he stood for in our country’s history," said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus from the team's hotel in Japan.

Williams died of a suspected heart attack on Friday in Cape Town, where he lived and worked as a rugby coach at the University of the Western Cape.

Each tribute made mention of the wing's talent on the rugby field, made famous by the part he played in the Springboks' momentous victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and all leant heavily on Williams' role off the field in breaking down the apartheid barrier within the sport. 

"Chessie was an icon," Breyton Paulse, another black wing who followed Williams into the Bok side, told news channel eNCA. 

"He paved the way for us, especially the guys coming from underprivileged areas," said Paulse who went on to win 64 caps. 

"He was a father figure. He is the reason so many players of colour today can walk into the Springbok team, it is because of players like Chester Williams and the late, great Tinus Linee."

Linee, who played with Williams at Western Province and was capped nine times by the Boks, died in 2014 from motor neurone disease. 

Williams' importance to the black people in South Africa as Nelson Mandela attempted to build his 'Rainbow Nation' cannot be underestimated.

"Chester Williams’s death at this tender age leaves all South Africans bereft of a rugby hero and national role model," said current president Cyril Ramaphosa in a statement.

"(He) inspired hundreds of thousands of South African children who had previously been excluded from rugby, to take up the game."

When the World Cup came to South Africa in 1995, Williams was the poster boy for the tournament as the government of  Mandela, elected a year earlier, tried to use the event to foster greater ties between the different races in the country. 

Williams was the only black player in the squad, playing a sport that had long been associated with white rule. 

The Springbok itself was seen as a symbol of apartheid by many black South Africans who had either ignored the game or made a point of supporting the opponents of the Boks.

As the Clint Eastwood film Invictus accurately portrayed, Williams was the go-to star when the Boks visited the black townships to run training clinics with the kids.

Williams did not seek a public relations role but he recognised the importance of the moment and responded with patience and charm. 

"Who will forget '95 when Chessie had such a massive impact on people, millions of South Africans?" said Paulse.

"He was a symbol of hope."

But it nearly did not happen as the Western Province wing was injured just before the event and was only brought back into the squad by coach Kitch Christie after Pieter Hendricks collected a suspension for his part in a fight in the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus' pool match against Canada. 

Williams hit the headlines immediately with four tries in the quarter-final win over Western Samoa and kept his place for the controversial rain-swept semi-final win against France.

He then lined up with No 11 on his back for the final at Ellis Park where Joel Stransky's extra-time drop goal gave the Boks a 15-12 win over New Zealand.  

"Chester was quiet and when he got stressed he stuttered a bit," Stransky told South Africa's Sunday Times website. 

"In 1995 he was thrust into the limelight but he took it all in his stride.

"He was a great player even though he wasn't the most skilful. There were others with more talent and skill but he worked so hard at his game to make himself a better player. As a result he got some major accolades and he deserved them.

"He was a salt of the earth gentleman with great values. He was just a really good human being."

Williams made his Springboks debut in 1993 against Argentina and scored 14 tries in 27 Test appearances over seven years.  

Since retiring he had been active in coaching, including stints with the Springbok Sevens team, Super Rugby's Cats and the Pumas. 

On the day of his death, Williams, who is survived by his wife Maria and three young children, posted a video online of himself preparing boxes of his beer, Chester's IPA, which was only launched a week ago.  

He is the fourth member of the '95 team to pass away, his death coming just five weeks after that of James Small who played right wing. 

Flank Ruben Kruger died from brain cancer in 2009 while scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen suffered for some years with motor neurone disease before dying in 2017.