The Glory of '95: Chester Williams' impact was key to World Cup campaign
I was in Johannesburg preparing for the quarter-finals. Incredibly we were already at that stage.
The pool matches, which had started with South Africa’s 27-18 win against the Wallabies on May 25th, had all been completed by June 4th.
The Springboks were in the final eight and the squad, dominated by Transvaal players and a Transvaal captain/coach duo of Francois Pienaar and Kitch Christie, were finally going to play at Ellis Park, which was home to the Transvaal players.
Western Samoa, runners-up to England, were going to be easy pickings for the Boks. The two teams had met in April at Ellis Park and the Bok had won 60-8.
Christie was finally going to play his hand and reveal his ‘A’ team. It would include Chester Williams on the left wing. Williams had been the poster boy in the tournament build-up and he was also the visual ambassador for South African Airways’s billboard campaigns welcoming the rugby world to South Africa.
Williams had been forced to withdraw from the tournament because of a hamstring injury, ironically suffered in the April drubbing of Samoa where he had scored two tries. But now, poignantly, at the very same venue and against the very same team, Williams was back in the No 11 jersey.
His inclusion had been confirmed on the Tuesday morning, the 6th June, when Pieter Hendriks had been suspended from the tournament. In a bizarre twist the two players’ fortunes had changed. Hendriks was the original tournament replacement for Williams.
All the media focus, both local and international was on Williams. If he was the darling of SAA’s campaign, then he was even more loved by the overseas media.
Race was prominent in discussion in the week before the quarter-finals. Williams’s selection had added colour to the all-white Springboks team. Every press conference spoke to a post-apartheid and democratic South Africa.
Williams was asked if it was now different? He was constantly questioned on race, opportunity and coloured and black rugby. The late Williams was never political in his views during his rugby career. He told the world media he was simply happy to finally have made it to the World Cup. He just wanted to speak about rugby.
I spent my week between the Springbok, (Western) Samoan, Scotland and All Blacks camps, with the latter two’s Sunday quarter-final played at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
I expected the Boks and All Blacks to comfortably win their matches. I also had France to brush aside Ireland, who had sneaked into the last eight with a 24-23 win against Wales. The big game was at Newlands in Cape Town on the Sunday when defending champions Australia would play England.
The Cape Town match also proved to be the most dramatic of the weekend.
My Saturday would be spent at Ellis Park where Williams scored four tries, Springbok fullback Andre Joubert lasted just 19 minutes because of one too many late tackles and Joost van der Westhuizen would have to lean on his friendship with Chester Williams to defend accusations from Samoan captain Pat Lam that he (Joost) had racially insulted Samoan players. There were also claims of biting.
The nastiness of the Samoan match, though physical, didn’t match the brutality of the Canadians, and unlike the dark evening in Port Elizabeth a week earlier, this was a match played at altitude in sunshine and with a four-try Williams afterglow.
France had crushed Ireland 36-12 and sandwiched between that result and the All Blacks’s 48-30 drubbing of Scotland was Australia versus England at Newlands.
I arrived in Cape Town on Sunday midmorning and went straight to Newlands for the afternoon kick-off.
Cape Town had been transformed to Twickenham. I was born and raised in Cape Town, but I never knew there were so many locally-based English supporters. Neither did the Wallabies players and media. They’d remarked afterwards that they thought they were playing in London; such was the weighted pro-English support.
Australia had been ordinary in beating Canada and Romania and they were dominated by the Springboks in losing the opening match. England, after a slow start against Italy and Argentina, had hammered Western Samoa 42-22.
The loser was going home, but the feeling was there couldn’t be a victor in this game because whoever won would play the All Blacks at the same venue the next week.
Newlands was again blessed with a capacity crowd, sunshine and a dramatic match for what was the rematch of the 1991 World Cup final, which Australia had won 12-6.
England’s flyhalf Rob Andrew, who had averaged 20 points at the World Cup, would kick a very famous drop goal in extra time to give England a 25-22 win. It was the last kick of the match and England had for the first time beaten Australia outside of the northern hemisphere. Andrew had again scored 20 points.
The noise when the kick went over was similar to the one that in 1976 when Robbie Blair’s last-minute touchline conversion for Province had beaten the All Blacks 12-11 at Newlands. It was clear who the home team was in this World Cup match. Newlands had become a little England, but listening to locals talk about Lomu and the All Blacks on Sunday evening, seven days from now Newlands would be more about black than white.
I’d be back for the Sunday World Cup semi-final between England and the All Blacks, but my travels would first take me from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then to Durban for South Africa’s semi-final against France.These two magnificent days wouldn’t compare to what was waiting a week later.