By Andy Colquhoun

Cape Town - At the peak of his fame in 1995 winger Chester Williams, who will probably play his last game for the Springboks on Sunday, achieved the rare feat in South African life of bridging the country's racial divide.

The black Western Province wing overshadowed even World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar to become the republic's most popular and recognisable sports personality.

His try-scoring feats on the field allied to an engaging personality and his humble origins had all races clamouring for a smile, a handshake or an autograph from "Chessie".

As the only black member of the South African team which won the World Cup on home soil, he had been viewed with suspicion by some who interpreted his selection as a token gesture in the wake of the ending of apartheid.

But Williams was there by right - he was South African player of the year in 1994 - and after missing the early matches through injury, he scored four tries against Western Samoa in the quarterfinals to show his worth to the side.

That World Cup campaign was the highpoint of Williams' career which will almost certainly draw to a close on Sunday when the Springboks play the Barbarians in Cardiff.

Breeding ground

Before the segregated rugby bodies unified in South Africa in 1992, Williams had been confined to black rugby competitions in the Western Cape - a breeding ground of many fine players previously denied their chance by South African racial policies.

But given the chance, Williams seized it with both hands. In 1993 he became only the third black Test Springbok and the first in nine years when he made his debut on a tour of Argentina.

A year later he became the first black player to be named as South Africa's player of the year having established himself on the Springbok left wing with tries in four successive tests and superb defensive skills.

He started in the same vein in the World Cup year of 1995 with two tries in a warm-up match against Western Samoa but injury forced his withdrawal from the World Cup squad much to the dismay of both Williams and the nation.

By mid-tournament he had recovered and the suspension of his replacement Pieter Hendriks - after the latter had been sent off against Canada - opened the door for Williams' return.

He came back in spectacular style. He scored a Springbok record four tries in the quarterfinal against Western Samoa and ended the year as a World Cup winner and with two tries against England at Twickenham under his belt.

Since then the 30-year-old's career has been blighted by injury. He damaged knee ligaments at the start of 1996 and when he returned in 1997 he promptly damaged the ligaments in the other knee.

Third comeback

He made his third comeback in 1998 and although the edge had been taken off his pace, he won a Springbok recall under Nick Mallett making replacement appearances against the All Blacks and Wallabies in the Tri-Nations competition.

Williams moved to the Lions (formerly Transvaal) in 1999 and scored eight tries in 14 appearances for them.

But he was unable to win back his Springbok place until earlier this year when Mallett selected him for a Tri-Nations test against the All Blacks - Williams' first Test start in four seasons.

He scored one of the Springboks' tries in a 46-40 win.

New coach Harry Viljoen offered Williams a position as assistant coach on the current tour of Argentina, Ireland and Britain but the player declined, preferring to stay on the field as long as possible.

After 14 tries in 27 Test matches that playing career at international level appears to have ended after the tour of Argentina and Britain showed Williams no longer had the pace to compete at the highest level.

But Williams refuses to accept his time is nearly up.

"They may well not pick me again but I have absolutely no intention of retiring at this time," he told reporters.

"I am only 30 years old and to my mind I have two good years left. I intend using those years to play rugby and I will be going all out to do my best for whatever team I play in." - Reuters