England prepares to welcome home conquering heroes

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The Independent Online

Thousands of fans will give a triumphant welcome to the England Rugby World Cup winning team when they return tomorrow morning, proudly bearing the Webb Ellis Trophy.

While the team and their supporters celebrated in Sydney, plaudits for the players and their coach, Clive Woodward, came from all quarters of a country making the most of a rare moment of national pride.

The team will arrive at Heathrow at about 5am and the trophy will have its own seat for the 22-hour trip on British Airways flight BA16, renamed Sweet Chariot for the occasion. BA said extra beer had been organised for the flight.

Some kind of official recognition such as a victory parade for the players will take place but there are no details yet.

In the meantime, the squad can bask in its success and expect lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals. Recognition in the New Year Honours list is almost certain for Woodward and also possible for the captain, Martin Johnson, and the vice-captain, Jonny Wilkinson, the team's goal kicker.

The Queen, political leaders and the captain of the other national football team, David Beckham, sang the praises of the world champions.

Tony Blair, who spoke to Woodward and Johnson yesterday after watching the match, said: "This was a fantastic day for English rugby and for England.'' A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said: "The Queen has sent a message to Clive Woodward congratulating the team on a great victory." Her grandson, Prince Harry, 19, who was at the match and later partied with some of the players, was somewhat more effusive: "Both teams played brilliantly and it was a final I shall never forget," he said.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who was at the match, said that the team would be honoured by Downing Street at a reception and a victory parade was "likely". The minister said the team was a great advertisement for the country and football hooligans could learn from the rugby fans' model behaviour.

In Sydney yesterday, the team were greeted by deafening applause when the players stepped out on to their hotel balcony, with the loudest cheers reserved for Wilkinson. Fans continued to celebrate yesterday while many more began the long journey home.

Australians were putting on a brave face. Newspapers that had poured scorn on the England players were noticeably subdued, with most commentators hailing the final as an outstanding match. Even Wilkinson's talents were acknowledged, with the Adelaide Sunday Mail calling him "Jonny the Lionheart".