The governing body South African Rugby announced the death and said the cause was a heart attack. The organization described him as “one of the best wings in South African rugby history” and a “star” of the celebrated squad that triumphed at the 1995 World Cup, where his performance “will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of our rugby public.”
Mr. Williams was a central figure in one of the most compelling sports dramas of the latter 20th century. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa hosted after being barred from the two previous tournaments because of its oppressive white-minority rule, assumed significance far beyond who won or lost on the field — although that mattered, too, and the victory by the South African Springboks only added to the event’s mystique.
The ’95 World Cup was dramatized in “Invictus,” the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 after 27 years in prison; Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaner captain of the Springboks; and McNeil Hendricks as Mr. Williams, who consulted on the film, coaching actors in the sport.
In a South African society brutally divided along racial lines, rugby was long considered a white sport, soccer a black one. Mr. Williams — who as a person of mixed race was considered “colored,” as distinct from black, under the apartheid regime — had grown up playing rugby. His father and two uncles, including one who had played for the Springboks, had excelled in the sport.
In the early years of his career, Mr. Williams recalled changing his clothes on the bus because locker rooms were restricted to white athletes. He debuted with the Springboks in 1993, facing off with Argentina, and saw apartheid fall the next year. When South Africa was selected to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Mandela sought to win the goodwill of the Springboks’ white fans by throwing his support behind the team.
“I ask you to get behind them,” Mandela implored black South Africans, “because they are our pride, they are your pride.”
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Mr. Williams, then in his 20s, appeared on billboards displayed in South Africa during the tournament, a major international event. Yet “we had no idea what was happening, not a clue,” Mr. Williams said.
“We were just so focused on winning,” he told the London Daily Telegraph in 2010. “I never saw the role that history has given us. It was Mandela who saw it all. He knew and he was right. Me, I just had my head down on rugby. I guess that’s why he’s a politician and I’m a rugby man.”
Because of an injury, Mr. Williams was forced to withdraw from the squad before the World Cup began, but after another player was suspended for a brawl, Mr. Williams was called back for the quarterfinal against Samoa. He scored four times but “refused to take credit, preferring to talk about the good work of his teammates,” the New York Times reported at the time.
The Springboks went on to defeat France before facing New Zealand in the final. Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey and cap, visited the players in the locker room before they took the field.
“We knew we had to go out there and win it for South Africa,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “There were tears in my eyes. But some of the other guys were so moved they were openly crying. That this man who had suffered so much should forgive and want us to win was incredible. It was the only motivation we needed.”
The Springboks prevailed, 15-12, and a beaming Mandela presented the World Cup trophy to Pienaar at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. It was a poignant image, but one that obscured festering racial sores, including among the rugby players. At times in his career, Mr. Williams had been the subject of insults, including from teammates; one taunted him with a racial slur and demanded of him, “Why do you want to play our game? You know you can’t play it.”
Four years after the World Cup, South African sports authorities ordered mandatory quotas for black players on the nation’s rugby teams because a policy of voluntary integration had been unsuccessful. At the 1999 World Cup, Mr. Williams was cut from the squad and said he was told that the racial quota had been met.
“I was definitely not a product of any enlightened developmental system put in place to help black and colored players,” he told the Telegraph in 2002. “No way. I did it the hard way. I fought my way up through the ‘white’ system on merit. I am a rugby player, pure and simple, that is my story.”
Chester Mornay Williams was born in Paarl, a city roughly 40 miles east of Cape Town, on Aug. 8, 1970. The area was the site of vigorous anti-apartheid protests, one in which his best friend was killed.
He started playing rugby at 8, stopped when he was 12 and resumed at 18 — but “no one I knew ever supported the Springboks,” he said, recalling the racial tensions of the era.
“My own mum always cheered for whoever they were playing against,” he told the Telegraph. “Even when I won my first cap, she wasn’t sure who to cheer for. Yet in the World Cup, because Mandela showed it was the right thing to do, she was right behind us. You cannot believe how big a thing that was.”
Mr. Williams worked for the South African military while beginning his rugby career. He was named player of the year in 1994 and appeared in his final test with the Springboks against Wales in 2000. He later pursued a coaching career in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, leading the national teams of Uganda and Tunisia.
According to SA Rugby, Mr. Williams’s survivors include his wife, the former Maria Robson, and three children.
Mr. Williams evinced mixed feelings about his role in the famous World Cup. He told the London Guardian that “the marketing men branded me a product of development and a sign of change” but that “nothing could have been more of a lie.”
He also said that “by and large I was well treated by management and players.”
“I wasn’t one to rock the boat, I was just grateful to be there, so I didn’t make a fuss about it,” he told the Telegraph in 2010. “I put it down to this: there are nice guys in this world and there are those who aren’t nice guys. I prefer to remember the nice guys.”