25/11/2003

Thousands gather for England's victorious homecoming

England's world-beating rugby team returned to the UK today to rapturous reception from thousands of fans who thronged Heathrow airport early this morning.

The 30-man squad stepped off the plane at 5am after a 25-hour return journey from Australia – and showed off the William Webb Ellis trophy to the estimated 10,000 fans who congregated at the arrivals lounge.

England beat Australia 20-17 on Saturday in what was the most tense and closely matched game in the tournament's 16-year history.

At a press conference afterwards, Jonny Wilkinson – whose drop goal in the dying seconds won the game for England – said that the team had been "overawed" by the huge support on display at the airport.

He added: "I’m keen to get back home because I haven’t seen many of my family for a long time now. In every sense I know I have been lucky enough to be involved in this set up. I have tried to take the changes and each game as it comes. I want to continue to be myself, to get back home and enjoy my normal life again and I think a lot of the guys are in the same boat, having to incorporate changes in their lives but to go about their lives as normally as possibly.”

England coach Clive Woodward, who is widely tipped for a knighthood in the New Year's Honours List, said that the support the team received on the night of the final was fantastic

He added: “Winning the World Cup was a massive credit to Martin Johnson and the team, we have worked very hard for it. This is a very experienced group of players. I have no doubt their lives will be changed to a certain degree but they will take it in their stride as professional sportsmen. They will handle all this calmly and enjoy it. We should be very proud of them and of what they are doing for rugby."

England Captain Martin Johnson said: “When you’re away playing in the Rugby World Cup, although you have such massive support, you are cocooned a little bit because it is a game of rugby and you need to win it. We had no idea what was going on at home and to see all the fans here to meet us was something we will never forget.”

The 33-year-old captain also refused to answer questions on his future and whether he intends to retire now that the world cup is over.

“At the moment I’m just heading back to my club. We are all going back to our clubs, that is what we do for a living. Like everyone else we have to go to work tomorrow morning. The strength of the domestic league game contributed to England’s success.

"We are used to playing very competitive rugby week in and week out and we found ourselves in the World Cup feeling that we were the stronger team, the tougher team", he said.

(gmcg)

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