Wed, Dec 10, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Rugby heroes get royal salute

WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS England beat Australia in a dramatic final last month to become the first team in the Northern Hemisphere to bring home the coveted William Webb Ellis trophy

AP , LONDON

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II poses with the England rugby squad at a reception at Buckingham Palace in London to celebrate winning the rugby World Cup, Monday. Back row, from left: Jason Robinson, Julian White, Trevor Woodman, Steve Thompson, Mike Catt, Iain Balshaw, Dan Luger, Stuart Abbott, Andy Gomarsall, Josh Lewsey and Jason Leonard. Centre row, from left: Mike Tindall, Ben Cohen, Joe Worsley, Martin Corry, Ben Kay, Danny Grewcock, Will Greenwood, Lewis Moody, Richard Hill, Mark Regan and Simon Shaw. Front row, from left: Matt Dawson, Paul Grayson, Dorian West, Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Her Majesty, Clive Woodward, Jonny Wilkinson, Neil Back, Phil Vickery and Kyran Bracken.

PHOTO: REUTERS

More than 750,000 people jammed central London to salute England's victorious Rugby World Cup team on Monday, with Jonny Wilkinson replacing Lord Nelson as the star attraction in Trafalgar Square.

In the biggest celebration in British sports history, flag-waving fans -- many perched on trees, lamp posts, traffic lights and balconies -- lined the streets and sang the team anthem "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on a bitterly cold, but sunny day.

"It's been incredible, it's been awesome, absolutely mind-blowing," captain Martin Johnson told the crowd in Trafalgar Square after showing off the cup from the front of an open-top bus.

Johnson, his players and coach Clive Woodward later went to Buckingham Palace for tea with Queen Elizabeth II, followed by a champagne reception at Prime Minister Tony Blair's office at 10 Downing Street.

England beat host and defending champion Australia 20-17 in a dramatic final at Sydney's Olympic Stadium Nov. 22, becoming the first Northern Hemisphere team to win the William Webb Ellis trophy.

The players were stunned when some 8,000 people showed up to meet them at Heathrow Airport two weeks ago.

Monday's tribute, they said, was even more overwhelming.

"It's been unbelievable," said back row star Lawrence Dallaglio. "We were very overwhelmed and humbled by the whole experience at Heathrow but this is a great, great day -- a chance for the whole country to celebrate.

"It's an opportunity for them to get out to show their pride and do something the English don't do very well, that's pat themselves on the back."

The biggest ovations were for Wilkinson, whose drop kick in injury time provided the winning points and made him a national idol along the lines of soccer star David Beckham.

"We're overwhelmed by all this support," Wilkinson said. ``It matters so much to us to know that everyone's behind the cause and what we're doing. Being on this bus now is one of the greatest moments of my life.''

At the palace, the players chatted with the queen, Princess Anne, Prince Edward and Prince William. They also sat for a team photo with the queen sitting between Johnson and Woodward, her famous corgies walking between the players' legs.

"I'm surprised it's still in one piece," the queen told Johnson as she touched the trophy. "You've been carrying around for several days."

Parade organizers had predicted a turnout of half a million people, but the figure exceeded that. London police put the turnout at 750,000; other estimates had the figure at 1 million.

It was England's greatest team sports triumph since winning soccer's World Cup in 1966 and Monday's massive street party surpassed the 1966 soccer celebrations. Many fans slept in Trafalgar Square overnight or arrived in the early morning hours -- with temperatures below freezing -- to get a good vantage point.

Children skipped school to attend the parade and thousands of adults took the day off from work. Fans wore England's white and red rugby shirts and waved the red-and-white flag of St. George.

The parade began at Marble Arch, with the route traveling down Oxford Street, through Piccadilly Circus and down to Trafalgar Square.

"I'm 30-plus now. I feel like a big kid. I really do," said scrumhalf Matt Dawson, whose pass set up the title clinching drop goal for Wilkinson.

"I don't think anyone in the world expected so many people to come out. Not just watching it but showing their appreciation. The place is going absolutely mad."

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