A scrum in the streets, a line-out at the Palace and a day that belonged to the nation

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If we hadn't known, even remotely, the depth of this need to feel good about ourselves, we knew it now.

We could see it in nearly a million faces along Oxford and Regent streets and The Haymarket, and the truth was that those faces, many of them painted in red and white, told us the story long before the great waves of sound that came when the Sweet Chariot buses nosed almost tentatively into Trafalgar Square.

It wasn't about strident nationalism, for all the flags of St George, and it wasn't about political opportunism because suddenly we knew it didn't matter if the Prime Minister got a one-on-one picture shot with Jonny Wilkinson.

Nobody needed telling who owned the young hero of England's World Cup rugby triumph. It was the nation, for this day at least, and a huge crosssection of it came streaming into the West End not to bellow like a rent-a-mob but express their happiness.

That was it, happiness. The happiness that comes with a pride in genuine achievement. It shone from every face, and even those who worry that, as a nation, we have become entrapped by the appeal of mere celebrity, that we rush to the streets at the drop of a headline or two, would perhaps have had some reassurance at the mood of the vast crowd which lined the streets on a grey, cold mid-day. It was a crowd that clambered on to every available point of elevation, traffic lights, rooftops, perilous window trestling, somewhere below the crane driver operating the family video high above Oxford Street, but it didn't do it with any mad hysteria. It was measured celebration but it seemed to reach down to the bones.

One roughly written placard appeared to speak for everyone - the kids in their England rugby shirts, the business types taking an early lunch, the hard-hat workers perched like flocks of beefy starlings on their red-and-white decorated scaffolding: "It's great to be English again - thanks, lads."

England's coach Clive Woodward, covered in the red-and-white ticker tape blasted from a machine on an upper floor of Marks and Spencer, sprayed the crowd with champagne. And Dorian West, a member of the winning squad, sipped from a can of Tetley's. Wilkinson, naturally, sat at the back of the bus, shy to a fault, talking with his unlikely confidante, the big flanker Richard Hill, and periodically giving a small wave and smile to his adoring public.

Wilkinson's status as the new heart-throb was repeatedly underlined. One teenage girl clung to a lampost with one hand and waved a sign with the other. It said: "Jonny, I won't have sex unless it is with you." Another sign announced: "Jonny, I want your babies." An old-fashioned sentiment? Maybe, but this in a way was a strangely old-fashioned England. Thousands were crushed together but there was no fighting for position; everyone seemed to be breathing evenly.

Martin Johnson, the captain, the awe-inspiring Johnno, did his best to enjoy the great outpouring of affection. You sensed that he would have preferred to have been back in his favourite pub in the Leicestershire countryside but this was his team being saluted for its sense of national pride, and duty, and this was another chore which had to be accomplished before real life could begin again.

Perhaps it was here in this implicit modesty where you could find the great source of the warmth that filled the streets of early December, this sense that these were heroes fashioned by the integrity of their competitive nature and not by any great expectation of the kind of the tribute that now washed over them so overwhelmingly.

It is certainly true that, as they came out in to Hamilton Place beside Park Lane and boarded their chariot, most of the players showed far more apprehension than they had displayed on the days counting down to their final triumph against Australia in the Telstra stadium two weeks ago. On the ride up Park Lane, they had only the merest glimpse of the reception that awaited them. Well-heeled pedestrains waved to them from in front of the Rolls Royce and Jaguar showrooms, and from a window of the Inter-Continental Hotel the former prime minister, and passionate cricket fan, John Major raised a fist of triumph.

Woodward murmured: "How could you imagine you would ever come to a day that would make you feel so proud?"

In Oxford Street the impact was astonishing. As the buses rolled under Marble Arch and swung into the street, the density of the crowds plainly stunned the players. Halfway down Oxford Street the people starting singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and, from every side street, they came running, businessmen in pin stripes, elegant lady denizens of Mayfair, shopgirls. A copper blew his whistle in long, jubilant blasts.

In Regent Street, the pavements and the rooftops and the balconies were jammed. A man in an Australian shirt waved that country's flag defiantly at the chariot, and the players laughed and cheered and nobody tried to storm his balcony. Hamley's toy store was not above a little bit of salesmanship - a great banner hung from its building, announcing: "The finest toys salute the finest boys in the world." At New Zealand House, the pain of All Black defeat had receded enough for a generous declaration: "100 per cent pure congratulations." Then, after the thronged old heart of the empire, Piccadilly Circus, there was Trafalgar Square and the great array of red and white, and the media calls and the receptions at Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. But you had to believe the heart, and the strength, of the day was in the streets, in the interaction of a people and its heroes. Whatever else happened, you knew that had been perfect.

In a pub in Shepherd's Market an ageing man, not unemotional, recalled a time of his youth when, as a member of a bomber crew which had to make a crash landing, he was obliged to walk with his crewmates through a town centre in Lincolnshire for a train that would take them back to base. They were were, of necessity, wearing their flying gear and something remarkable happened. People came out of their shops and their offices and applauded. The old man said that he had never felt such a sense of a nation as one, of such a strong bonding. He said that he heard more than an echo of that in the streets of London yesterday. Maybe everyone needs their heroes, on a battlefield or in the skies or a sports pitch.

That, certainly, was the soaring conviction of those who came to salute England's rugby team yesterday. What you wanted to do, as always on these occasions, was take hold of the moment and store it for the future, let it be a living memory of what can happen when a nation, one perhaps a little weary and disillusioned, is reminded of the best of itself.

It happened yesterday. The nation celebrated a great sports victory, and, perhaps, something a little bit more. There was lot of joy and, maybe, a little more hope in the air.

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