Chester Williams says the colour issue was hardly raised in his homeland when he took over as the Cats' coach two weeks ago.

It's not even an issue Williams is overly keen on talking about, he says from Johannesburg.

"It wasn't really raised by the media here," says Williams when asked if he saw himself as, once again, providing a lead for black and coloured people in a complex country still breaking free from the horrors of apartheid.


Williams goes on.

"That shows there have been a lot of changes for the better of the game here. A lot of black people are getting opportunities. I'm treated as a person, not as a colour," he says.

Winger Williams, dubbed "The Black Pearl", was one of the stars in the 1995 Springboks team which won the World Cup. His career, which included 27 tests, involved fightbacks from two serious knee injuries before he finally succumbed to another in 2001.

He was the first black player to play for his country after the end of apartheid, and is now the first black head coach of a Super 12 team, having been promoted from assistant after Australian Tim Lane was fired during their bye week.

Williams is almost off-hand in describing his rise in the coaching game, saying he never considered it as a career when he was playing.

He started off as an assistant coach for Boland in the Currie Cup. He then got offered the national sevens job, and one thing has led to another.

Williams even made the initial shortlist of candidates named last year for the Springboks job. He also survived to make the subsequent long list of eight, a very South African way of doing things. Nothing is ever simple in the Republic.

When Jake White was appointed, Williams controversially turned down an offer to be his assistant. Instead, Williams is now in charge of the scratchy Cats, his first major assignment on a path that may well lead to the Springboks job one day.

The Cats had lost 12 games in a row under Lane and there had long been suggestions that the Australian could not relate to the Afrikaner-dominated side.

Another Lane assistant, Willie Meyer, also got the boot, replaced by ex-Cats coach Frans Ludeke. Former Springboks and Natal coach Ian McIntosh was brought in as an adviser.

So this is a tough place to start for Williams, although at least he does not face the pressure of high expectations just yet.

Pressure, controversy, battling the odds - they are nothing new to the 33-year-old Williams.

In his book titled A Biography of Courage, he exposed how most of his Springboks team mates shunned black players, with Williams naming Gary Teichmann, Rassie Erasmus and Werner Swanepoel as exceptions to the rule. Meal times were particularly difficult, he revealed. Wing James Small would even call Williams a "f****** kaffir" on the field.

Loved by many in the public, Williams often endured humiliation and isolation away from their gaze. He felt used as a propaganda tool suggesting racial harmony in rugby.

The stories that came out of the Springboks camp before last year's World Cup certainly indicated that racism is not dead and buried in South African rugby.

Understandably, colour issues are not what the new Cats coach wishes to talk at length about right now. Instead, he's on a mission to instil belief in a team that, since losing a 2001 semifinal to the Sharks, has won only three games out of 28.

Public support, says Williams, has dropped off, and in turn the players are finding it even harder to turn things around when they are living in an atmosphere of declining interest. Just as success breeds success, failure breeds failure.

The Cats have by far the worst defensive record in the competition, conceding an average of more than 40 points a game this season.

Even the arrival of a new coach, and the spur of a local derby, failed to get the Cats past the winner's post against the Sharks last week.

And, Williams says, South African rugby is on the rise again, the evidence being in the Super 12 standings, because it is finally prepared to analyse the game properly and throw out old methods.

The blot on the landscape, though, is in Williams' patch.

Williams says he needs to introduce structure on and off the field, but says: "This is not something I can do in one week, or even three weeks. We need belief and a lot of that comes down to how you talk to the players.

"At the moment we're just desperate to get that first win. I'm hoping we can get up to somewhere like eighth on the log. And we can help other South African teams."

The latter is a familiar and patriotic clutching of straws made by failing teams, and one that has often been heard in the past from the Chiefs, whom the Cats face at Ellis Park on Sunday morning.

It will be Williams' first home game in charge, and a chance to enjoy a very public moment of magic in an extraordinary career that has included many trials in lonely places.