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Rediff News  All News  » Sports » London pours into the streets for rugby bash

London pours into the streets for rugby bash

Last updated on: December 09, 2003 03:15 IST

London today staged the biggest sporting celebration in English history when up to three-quarters of a million people poured into the capital's streets to see England's rugby union heroes parade the World Cup through the city centre.

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Fans, many draped in the red and white Flag of Saint George, braved bitter cold to catch a glimpse of the players as they rode through the heart of the city in two open-top buses.

As the procession left the Marble Arch and crawled towards Trafalgar Square at the speed of a lumbering prop forward, thousands of supporters struck up a chorus of 'Swing low sweet chariot', the popular anthem of English rugby union.

Schoolchildren played truant to join the party and their grandparents said the celebrations -- triggered by England's dramatic 20-17 victory over Australia last month -- surpassed even those in 1966, when England won the soccer World Cup.

"This means more than '66," said 69 year-old Godfrey Harvey, who recalled watching that final with his wife at home on their small black-and-white television. "This was superb because the Aussies had had it their own way for so long."

The parade brought Oxford Street to a halt at the height of the Christmas shopping season and turned down Regent Street, where it was greeted by a huge Flag of Saint George covering the street's elegant Georgian facades.

Fans, some of whom had slept out on one of the coldest nights of the year to ensure that they got a good view of their idols, stood 12 deep along the entire length of the route and packed every inch of Trafalgar Square, the traditional epicentre of London street parties.

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Police estimated the crowd at 750,000, far more than took to the streets 37 years ago to celebrate winning the soccer World Cup, still regarded by many as England's finest sporting achievement.

"This is absolutely fantastic," said veteran prop forward Jason Leonard. "So many people out there have turned out to show their appreciation of us and allow us to do the same to them. I don't think we will take the smiles off our faces all day."

"We are keen to pay back our respects to the fans, who have given us so much support over the past eight weeks," said the team's golden boy, flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson, who clinched England's epic victory in Sydney with a last-minute drop goal.

The players, wearing red roses in their lapels, were showered with confetti as the buses passed along. They were due to take tea with the Queen and then head to the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence for a champagne reception.

As the crowd drifted away from the square, some fans piled into The Walkabout, one of the city's many Australian pubs. "I'm just here to gloat," said one smiling fan clutching a pint of Australian lager. Barman Simon Grant, from Melbourne, said: "It's all English in here today."

In a gentle dig at their Antipodean rivals, one central London food shop offered its customers 'humble pie' -- an Australian version, made with kangaroo meat, of the traditional British steak and kidney pie.

The parade, blessed with brilliant but glacial sunshine, was of a kind usually reserved for state visits or royalty. The gates of the Marble Arch monument were opened to allow it through -- an honour normally bestowed only on the royal family.

England's victory has sparked an outpouring of national pride in a country which has grown all too accustomed to sporting failure in recent years.

Now rugby, a sport so often overshadowed by soccer, has taken centre stage and England coach Clive Woodward has been tipped for a knighthood in the forthcoming New Year's honours list.

Paul Majendie and Gideon Long
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