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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November, 2003, 07:14 GMT
Welcome stuns England stars
By James Standley
BBC Sport at Heathrow airport

Jonny Wilkinson (l), Martin Johnson (c), Clive Woodward (r)
England's rugby world champions flew into Heathrow early on Tuesday morning to be greeted by thousands of their passionate fans.

Some of the players looked stunned as they made their way through the cheering and singing hordes who had turned out to greet them.

Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked the winning drop-goal with a minute left of extra-time to win the World Cup, was given the loudest cheer.

But it was all relative, as every person associated with England's glorious triumph in Australia was cheered to the rafters as they emerged into the sea of fans.

As their plane touched down just before 0430 GMT thousands of fans were already waiting and their numbers swelled by the minute.

Fans left their cars scattered along the verges around terminal four and walked, clad in their England shirts and flags, from across Heathrow's sprawl to catch a glimpse of their heroes.

I've waited 12 years for this and it feels so fantastic
Andrea Bagnall, 39, Welwyn Garden City

In the arrivals hall, Andrea Bagnall, 39, was perched on a barrier an hour before the team was due to make their appearance.

"I haven't come far," she said.

"Only from Welwyn Garden City but I was determined not to miss this.

"I've waited 12 years for this and it feels so fantastic. I couldn't get to Australia to watch the final, but I'm determined to go to the next one in France."

John Porter, 26, from Reigate, was equally excited.

"It was a spur of the moment decision to come. I was up late with my girlfriend last night and we decided we couldn't afford to miss this. What an amazing atmosphere," he said.

The narrow arrivals area was rammed with England fans, many wearing club shirts from around the country, with thousands more surrounding the team coach outside the terminal.

Fans stood several deep on every level of the multi-storey carpark and every barrier and bus shelter was covered in white-clad supporters.

When the first players appeared and were ushered left, rather than right, there was a stampede of fans along the overhead balcony as they tried desperately to see which of their heroes had caused the commotion.

England rugby fans cheer the team onto their coach

Unable to catch more than a glimpse, some fans spilled through a fire exit and found themselves just yards away from the England bus.

Inside, players stood around smiling and raising their arms in triumph, while the crowd sung "Swing Low", and cheered every new arrival.

When 113-cap prop-forward Jason Leonard emerged from the building the crowd burst into a rousing chorus of "There's only one Jason Leonard" that echoed around the terminal.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for Wilkinson, who was the last to appear, flanked by six police bodyguards and looking a little overwhelmed by the passion of the fans.

As the bus finally edged away on its journey to the team hotel in Bagshot, fans streamed forward to get another look at their heroes.

Police formed barriers down the side of the road to hold back the crowd as the coach edged its way through the throng.

Players waved and applauded the fans while Wilkinson stood towards the front like a true charioteer.

Then the coach finally pulled away, with the players facing a gilded future few can have imagined when they left for Australia just a few weeks ago.



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