From tears and sorrow to smiles and warm applause, Chester Williams’ Newlands farewell was fit for a hero, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
Walking to Newlands on a Saturday afternoon for a Test match is a joy for the senses.
The cool northwesterly wakes you up with an icy slap on your cheeks. The flags and jerseys are colourful and bright. The smell of boerewors and onions on the vendors’ braais makes you forget about the diet and the cucumber sandwiches your wife packed for you.
The buzz outside Newlands ahead of a big match tingles the spine and the fans’ loud singing sets the stage for what’s to come inside. The anticipation is a killer. The referee can’t start the match soon enough.
But there was a different atmosphere when we walked towards Newlands on Saturday for Chester Williams’ funeral.
The normal buzz was replaced by an eerie silence. There were no flags. No boerewors on the grills. It was the same inside the stadium.
Chester entered the cathedral of South African rugby for the last time in a white coffin and a bouquet of Proteas in absolute silence. It’s in stark contrast to his playing days when Newlands exploded when he and his Western Province teammates took the field in the mid and late 90s.
The only noise was the security guards’ two-way radios, which were probably still set for a match-day volume. That’s how quiet it was.
Chester was accompanied by his friends, family and a number of the 1995 World Cup-winning squad, who only a few months ago also buried James Small.
The tears started to flow immediately during the first hymn, ‘How Great Thou Art’. There was great sadness.
But former Springbok No 8 and manager of the 1995 World Cup team, Morne du Plessis, reminded funeral-goers to rather celebrate Chester’s life and his unbelievable talent as a rugby player.
‘Chester was small in stature but had a heart of a lion,’ the former Western Province captain said.
‘He was an uncomfortable poster boy for the 1995 World Cup, because of his shyness. That could wear anybody down, but Chester took on that responsibility and emerged as an inspiration for millions of South Africans.
‘Chester will not be forgotten, his smile will shine on forever.’
There was laughter again after the initial sadness. The music followed when the great PJ Powers took us all back to the 1995 World Cup with a rendition of World in Union that was as powerful on Saturday as it was 24 years ago.
She then changed the words to her hit song ‘Jabulani’ to ‘Chester Williams’, which was an appropriate description of the fallen hero.
‘You have made us feel so strong, Chester Williams!’
‘Chester Williams! The people sing and dance!’
But Chester would leave Newlands for the last time like he left it in his prime. The program director John Lloyd asked the crowd for a minute of applause, instead of a minute silence.
He requested everyone to close their eyes and imagine Chester running down the wing to score.
As Chester’s coffin was carried out of the stadium, there was again a sombre silence, until one of the mourners shouted ‘CHESTER!’ just before the coffin went down the tunnel. A loud cheer and a rousing applause followed.
It was the send-off Chester deserved, applauded off the field one last time. For a brief moment everyone forgot the sadness. Newlands felt like Newlands again when Chester was still its darling.
Farewell Chester … Newlands and South Africa will always love you.
Photo: Gallo Images