OPINION: The ‘Black Pearl’ will shine forever
But beneath the friendly exterior was a tough guy who fought hard for his success on the rugby pitch, although his affable demeanour may have hindered him off it as a coach.
Williams grew up in a rugby-mad family in Paarl in the Western Cape, with his father Wilfred and uncles turning out for representative sides in the SA Rugby Football Federation structures in the 1970s and '80s.
The most famous of those was his father’s brother, Avril Williams, who became a fully fledged Springbok as a wing in 1984 against England.
Naturally, Chester followed that example, turning out for the WP Federation’s Craven Week team and later senior side, and eventually the WP League and Currie Cup teams.
He was part of the navy and army, which would have driven his personal discipline. And it is those traits that saw him come through in provincial rugby until he made his Springbok debut in 1993, against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Williams scored his first try on that November afternoon in a runaway 52-23 win, and he recorded seven touchdowns in 11 Tests before the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But his first major injury as a Bok player - a hamstring problem - ruled him out of the tournament.
Pieter Hendriks was involved in the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’ fight against Canada, though, and upon his suspension, Williams was recalled for the quarter-final against Western Samoa at Ellis Park.
He grabbed a Bok record four touchdowns as Francois Pienaar’s team romped to a 42-14 victory. But while it was an unforgettable occasion, Williams told ESPN in 2015 that he had felt the heat off it.
“Look, I enjoyed 1995, but I knew I was under massive pressure. There was a lot of pressure on me to be successful. The billboards were of me, everywhere. And then I got injured - Chester wasn’t there to play anymore. And then I got called back and the pressure was even greater as I went straight into the quarter-finals. If we lost, I’d have got blamed. But then I got my four tries...”
He tackled his heart out in the semi-final against France and the decider against the All Blacks, and Williams was celebrated as one of the heroes of the history-making Springbok team.
But in reality, he wrote in his book ‘Chester: A biography of courage’ about how difficult it was to be accepted as just a rugby player due to his race: “You were either a product of development, a quota player or just a mere token. Even when you were first in the team’s breakfast dining room, other players would not join you. I was a black rugby player, and that somehow separated me from the squad.”
Williams’ career was badly affected by a number of knee injuries after the 1995 World Cup, which led to him losing some of his pace. He was devastated by his omission from the 1999 Bok World Cup squad by coach Nick Mallett, as he had been part of the 1998 Tri-Nations-winning group.
He fought his way back into the Springbok squad the following year, and played his 27th and last Test against Wales in Cardiff in November 2000.
Having dabbled in sevens previously, he was appointed as the Springbok Sevens coach in 2001, and he guided the Blitzboks to a bronze medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
He launched a bid for the Springbok head coach job following Rudolf Straeuli’s departure at the end of the 2003 World Cup, but despite making the final shortlist, he lost out to Jake White.
Williams turned down the Bok assistant coach post offered to him because “I was made to feel that it would be a political appointment and I didn’t want that. I’d been through that as a player for 10 years”, he told the Cape Argus in 2007.
He became the Cats assistant coach in Super Rugby under Australian Tim Lane, and soon took charge after Lane was fired mid-season.
Williams’ team won his second game as head coach against the Chiefs, but lost the last four. He was retained for the 2005 season, but the Cats had just one win and one draw out of 11 matches, and he was let go by his bosses.
His introduction to the coaching scene, though, saw him speak out more openly about the prejudice that black rugby players face in South Africa.
That frankness, and a lack of initial success in the 15-man coaching arena, contributed to him being largely sidelined again as a mentor in local rugby.
He had to go to Uganda to lead their national team, while he also had a stint as the Pumas head coach.
Williams had another stab at the Bok job in early 2008, but lost out to Peter de Villiers.
The ‘Black Pearl’ was also recruited by WP in 2007 as an acting under-21 assistant coach.
But after a month, Williams told me in a Cape Times story that he was looking for an overseas gig as Province were unable to grant him a contract extension.
It led to him going all the way to Tunisia to coach their national team until 2012, after which he moved to Romanian club Timisoara and won the league title there. He also spent some time in Croatia.
Williams would contact me at times when he was in Cape Town, often bemoaning his lack of coaching opportunities in Mzansi. Sadly, he never received backing at the highest level.
When he visited WP’s training headquarters in Bellville, we would talk about the latest developments in rugby - him often wearing that broad smile, a smart shirt and a chain around his neck when he wasn’t in a tracksuit.
I remember him speaking to me over the years about the likes of Gio Aplon and later Cheslin Kolbe, both of whom he felt weren’t being given fair chances at the Springboks.
But he loved coaching almost as much as playing, and he was delighted to get out his whistle to take charge of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) team in the Varsity Shield.
Williams took UWC all the way to the Varsity Cup in 2019, and would’ve hoped that his success would result in a break at provincial level.
He also launched his own beer brand, Chester’s Lager, in August 2019, and was set to promote the beer in Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
“Good morning. I’m going to be in Japan for the beginning of the RWC not only to watch rugby, most importantly to promote Chester’s IPA Beer. I will keep you posted with both rugby and Chester’s IPA Beer,” he posted on the morning of September 6.
That same afternoon, he died of a heart attack, having just returned home in Plattekloof from a gym session - aged just 49.
Williams may have been a quiet individual who was reluctant to rock the boat off it, but in his determined style, he did most of his talking on the field.
He walked the tough road for black players in the early years of unification in rugby, which paved the way for the likes of Breyton Paulse, and now Makazole Mapimpi and Kolbe to become celebrated Springboks.
And those 14 tries in 27 Tests, a World Cup gold medal and his Bok blazer could never be taken away from him.@AshfakMohamed
Independent on Saturday