CAPE TOWN – Grown men chasing a ball after dark, in an arena lit up by car headlights, and with no protection from the cold wind.
When I asked Chester Williams, who died so suddenly on Friday, about his earliest rugby memory, the image was not one manufactured by television. Nor was it crowded stands, hot chips, pies and the one-sided chant of “Western Province” at Newlands. It was also not of the Springboks.
When Chester dug deep into the memory bank, he came up with cold nights spent waiting at an open field for his father’s rugby training to finish. Chester was 5 when he and his brother Wilmot would watch grown men turn a piece of empty, lifeless field into a theatre of dreams for two hours, three times a week.
Disciplined, the two boys would sit in the car and watch. If it wasn’t too cold, Chester and the older Wilmot would take up another vantage point, bums on the grass, quietly passing the time. Neither boy would run wild; it was not the done thing.
The boys had little fun, said Chester. They were not at the side of the field by choice. Chester admitted that if he had had his way, he would have been at home long before nature’s lights went out and the car lights went on.
Rugby, in the family genes on dad Wilfred’s side and mom Julene’s, held no romantic sway for the young Chester. Wilfred Williams would play against the British and Irish Lions in 1974 and against France in 1975, but Chester couldn’t recall even being at the game.
Rugby would creep slowly into Chester’s life after his friend Neil had been shot during a political protest, and the rugby field would be a place where he would find as much solace as he would experience pleasure.
This was particularly true when it came to easing the pain of his brother Wilmot’s sudden passing while still at university.
Chester would dedicate everything he did as a rugby player to Wilmot, who he described as “the brother who carried around my dream of playing Test rugby but never got to see it happen. You remain my inspiration”.
The first Test jersey was one worn for Wilmot and the other two matches Chester listed as his most significant were the 1995 World Cup final against the Springboks and a club match he played when only 17 years old. What distinguished the club game from any other was that it was the only time Chester played in a match alongside his father.
The deeper meaning of the occasion was one, he told me, that would never be forgotten. “He watched as I stood up for myself and took the fight to guys a lot older and bigger. I knew he was there, but he wanted me to do it on my own. There was an acceptance that I had never felt before then.”
Wilfred would announce his retirement in the changeroom after the game, saying when you line up in the same team as your son it is time to go. It was a light-hearted moment, but the words had the necessary impact on Chester. His dad had handed over the family rugby baton but with no pressure on Chester to run with it.
Chester would play 170 first-class matches and score 89 tries and one drop goal. He’d play 27 Tests for the Springboks and wear a Bok jersey in 47 matches, in which 83% ended with victory. Chester’s rugby-playing career mirrored my rugby-writing career. We both made our debuts in 1991 and I would get to write about his provincial, Super Rugby and Test career over the next decade. I’d also be a teammate in my capacity as Springboks’ communications manager when he played his final match for the Springboks against a star-studded British Barbarians at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.
It was later said of Chester’s swansong that it was perfectly scripted.
Chester had this outrageously infectious smile but when he asked me to write his life story in 2002, I’d find so much more to him than rugby. He was a man who had known hardship, loneliness, disappointment and sadness and pain of losing his siblings.@mark_keohane
* Mark Keohane is the author of Chester Williams’s biography, titled: Chester, a biography of courage.