At the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa history was made by a team of 28 men marking a truly remarkable chapter in the story that is the Springboks. The host nation found themselves in Pool A with defending champions Australia, Canada and Romania. Kitch Christie’s men outperformed their opponents in the pool stages making it three from three and topped the standings. The Boks played some great rugby comfortably defeating the Australians 27-18, Romanians 21-8 and Canadians 20-0.
In the knockout stages they faced Western Samoa, quarter-finalists in 1991 and again four years later. Having already navigated the group stages like pros these South Africans were most definitely in for a test against the islanders. One man who was all but thrown into the deep end was a then 25-year old Chester Williams. The wing initially missed out on selection due to injury but was starting his first match at this World Cup and it could not be tougher against the tough Pacific Islanders in a World Cup quarter-final.
The man known as “Chessi the Black Pearl” to the nation, recalled the build up to this match saying that ‘it was very tense’, but relaxed in the camp as the management and players alike were focused on getting the desired result at Ellis Park. They were ready for any surprises but the team was confident that they could beat the Western Samoans. When asked about his feelings before the match especially playing a side that he had got injured against prior to the World Cup he said that he was emotional as this was his first game back and it was at rugby’s biggest event. Williams remembers his feelings when the referee blew his whistle to get the match started and said all he wanted was to do was his best and show that he deserved to be on the team. He went on to say that despite his personal feelings as a team they were ready to do their best and ‘win it for their fellow South Africans.’ On his return from injury Williams scored four tries, a feat not matched by any Springbok at that time, as they progressed to the semi-finals after a 42-12 victory including tries from hooker Chris Rossouw and lock Mark Andrews, as well as a contribution with the boot from Gavin Johnson.
He recalled the feelings during the 80 minutes saying that it was ‘exciting and tense’ and made mention of how he loved the support from the fans. After the victory the feelings of relief and the atmosphere that the supporters created was what he remembered the most along with the feeling of pride having played a role in this significant step towards the semi-finals. For the Western Province player the participation in that World Cup was a special experience as he was the first player of colour to represent his country and the only one on this team. The “Black Pearl” explained that this was an amazing experience and all he wanted to do was do his best which he did and almost certainly cemented his spot in the team. He elaborated saying that he made friends for life as they were ‘amazing friends then and are even better now.’
He recounted seeing headlines in the newspaper the day after the quarter-final reading “CHESSI THE BLACK PEARL” and felt a great sense of pride. He went on to say that the support around the Rugby World Cup and the Springboks escalated as they headed towards the final and the team felt it. The former Cats Super 12 coach emphasised that this particular World Cup was ‘the most important one as it was about uniting a rainbow nation.’ An important part of bringing the nation together was played not just by this tournament and the win but also by President Nelson Mandela who most notably took the time to reach out to the team and get involved with these men from the beginning of their journey and was very knowledgeable about the team, knowing the ‘names and positions of the players.’ Williams makes special mention of his ‘random visits’ to their training sessions and the role he played as the team’s ‘special captain off the field who motivated them to achieve what they did in that tournament.’ According to Williams, Mandela was not the only factor of inspiration for their success at the tournament, but part of the rainbow of cultures and races that stood together as South Africa supporting them at every stage of the tournament.
After a successful World Cup campaign Chester Williams said that he learnt a lot about himself in particular his hardworking nature, that he was able to bring people together, his love for people and ‘most importantly that team work creates the spirit of partnership, collaboration and winning together.’
Williams continued to live by the principles he learnt at the World Cup as he went on to coach the national Sevens side and founded the Chester Williams Initiative and Foundation which was started in order to raise funds for the medical treatment of his friend, the late Thinus Linee, who was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. This foundation has grown to focus on sports, education, leadership, medical and housing. He currently supports a squatter camp in his home town of Paarl, appropriately named the “Chester Williams Squatter Camp”, where he provides food and clothing on a monthly basis and has future plans of extending his reach to include blankets and even a soup kitchen.
After reminiscing about his experience at the 1995 showpiece Williams had some words of wisdom for our Springboks heading to England for this year’s installment of the Rugby World Cup, saying: ‘You must become one team and one nation because that is what makes us a strong nation and together we can be champions.’