Williams’ sudden death, so soon after team-mate James Small, hits SA hard
Springbok great Chester Williams’ sudden death from a heart attack on Friday came a week after his sister was hospitalised due to the same ailment.
Former rugby writer Andrew Koopman, a close friend of Williams, whom he first met when the 1995 Rugby World Cup winner made his debut for Western Province in 1993, said the former winger’s sister Anthea was recovering in hospital when her brother died, having had a heart attack last week.
Koopman added that Williams’ brother Wilmot had died when he was still in high school. The reason given at the time was heart complications, which would suggest that heart problems run in the family.
Williams, who was the only black player in the immortalised Springbok Rugby World Cup squad of 1995, died just under a year short of his 50th birthday on Friday, having reported feeling unwell after returning from the gym.
His death came just two months after fellow Springbok winger James Small – also after suffering a heart attack – and just over a week after he launched Chester Beer, which he was preparing to promote at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Williams, who made 27 appearances for the Boks and scored 14 tries, is the fifth member of the “Class of 95” to perish.
The others are Small, coach Kitch Christie (cancer), Ruben Kruger (brain tumour) and Joost van der Westhuizen (motor neurone syndrome).
Williams’ death has reverberated around the rugby world as the World Cup is less than a fortnight away from kick off.
World Rugby mourned Williams’ passing, with Brett Gosper, its chief executive, saying the Paarl native was “a poignant symbol of the iconic 1995 Rugby World Cup and a lovely man”.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, who struck up a friendship with Williams when the two played for the Boks and the Cats, said he and his team were in shock: “I played with Chester, and many in our management team knew him well.
“Only this week, our management team was chatting to Chester about his plans to come to the tournament ... it will take us some time to get over this shock. This is a sad day for South African rugby.”
Former Springboks and Lions fullback Conrad Jantjes – an unlikely friend given the 10-year age gap between them – said he had spoken to Williams on Wednesday. He gave a personal account of the kind of man Williams was.
“When I came into the Lions set-up [as a teenager] in 2000, I was surrounded by superstars and legends of the game, and I was intimidated,” he said. “Chester came straight to me, pulled me in and insisted on being my roommate, making sure I was always part of the conversation.
“I was in awe of meeting him because, as far as I was concerned, he was ‘Mr 95 World Cup’ to me. Only two people have been like that for me – Chester and Madiba.”
Jantjes said he was shocked by the news because of how healthily Williams had lived: “What makes it harder to believe is that I know how fit he was. He was always running marathons and going to the gym every day ... this is closer to home because I also try to run around and keep fit. It’s scary.”
Jantjes, a precocious talent who could have also played soccer and cricket at international level, credited Williams with keeping him in rugby when he had a fallout with then Cats coach Laurie Mains.
“I could easily have given up the game, but he pulled me aside and said things like that would always happen in the game. He’s done a lot for me and I’ll forever be grateful for that.
“I feel for [his wife] Maria and their children. Yes, we’ve lost a team-mate, a friend and a coach, but they’ve lost a husband and a father. It breaks my heart.”
Jantjes said Williams’ generosity of spirit extended to warning him when he was going to withdraw, having been named in the team to help him get his mind right.
He wanted to replace him. Williams called Jantjes and told him that he was his number one fullback when he became Cats coach.
He also helped calm his nerves ahead of his second test against Australia when he was no longer a player.
“When he told me he’d be Cats coach, I was considering signing with a French team, and I literally went to gym after that conversation. He had that effect on me – it could have been anyone telling me that stuff, but because it came from him, I felt I had to step up.”
Koopman said Williams, who ironically fancied himself as the best Springbok potjiekos cook in the world, was the kind of man who kept all hischildhood friendships intact and loved getting everyone together for his birthday.
He said the man nicknamed “The Black Pearl” but better known as Chessie was looking forward to his 50th birthday, warning his friends to avail themselves for a three-day celebration at a wine farm in Stellenbosch next year.
It is unclear when the funeral will be held. Williams’ stepson Ryan is in New Zealand and trying to make his way back home.
The Bok winger is survived by Maria, Ryan, and twins Chloe and Matthew.