JOHANNESBURG – This morning the Springboks, who are in Japan preparing for the Rugby World Cup (RWC), woke up to the devastating news that World Cup winner Chester Williams died after a suspected heart attack on Friday. “This was horrible news to wake up to,” coach Rassie Erasmus said in a statement. “There was a very sombre mood in the breakfast room, it really is unbelievable news.
The death of the 49-year-old winger, who scored 14 tries in 27 appearances for the Springboks, including four in a single test, comes just weeks before the RWC kicks off in Japan. He was due to attend as one of the event’s past legends.
The Springboks were “devastated” by the news of his death, Erasmus said.
“Only this week our management team was chatting to Chester about his plans to come to the tournament and about tickets for Rugby World Cup matches.
“It will take us some time to get over this shock.”
Williams’ death is the second in less than two months from South Africa’s title-winning side of 1995 in which he was the only non-white player (breaking racial barriers to emerge as a national hero).
Fellow wing James Small also died following a heart attack aged just 50 on July 10.
Williams’ try-scoring exploits, and trademark broad smile, made him an instant hero and gave black South Africans a reason to support the Springboks in the early years of the country’s transition away from apartheid.
He had been injured before the World Cup but returned for the quarter-final against Western Samoa, becoming a household name overnight after scoring four tries in a 42-14 win.
Player of the year in South Africa in 1994, Williams’ career was plagued by knee injuries that restricted his test appearances.
“The news of Chester’s passing is devastating and hard to believe, as he was still young and seemingly in good health,” said SA Rugby president Mark Alexander.
“Chester was a true pioneer in South African rugby and his performances at the World Cup in 1995, as a snapshot of his Springbok career, will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of our rugby public. His influence stretched wider than just the rugby world.”
Kobus Wiese, a ’95 team mate, paid tribute to “a talented player, an important member of our rugby family, a loving father who adored his children, a man loved by his community.”
“As a group our hearts are bleeding and filled with sadness at the loss of our brother,” he added
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont added on Twitter: “Desperately saddened to hear of Chester Williams’s passing. A symbol of the rainbow nation, Chester’s name will forever epitomize a remarkable and transformational Rugby World Cup 1995. We’ve lost a great, engaging man far too soon.”
Williams, married with three children, turned to coaching after his playing days, starting with the South African sevens side that won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2002. He worked later in Uganda, Romania and Tunisia.
He was coaching the University of the Western Cape at the time of his death and had recently launched his own beer to coincide with the Rugby World Cup build-up.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Toby Davis and John Stonestreet)
Condolences to family & friends of Rugby legend, Chester Williams, who will be remembered for his significant contribution to the very first post-apartheid @Springboks team that made SA proud with their victory at the @rugbyworldcup 1995. May he rest in peace #RIPChesterWilliams pic.twitter.com/deuHN3AquO
— DIRCO South Africa (@DIRCO_ZA) September 6, 2019