A dawn chorus of chants and cheers greets England's newest megastars

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Heathrow had not witnessed such a frenzied welcome since John, Paul, George and Ringo touched down at the height of Beatlemania after a tour of the United States.

A few hundred fans began arriving as early as Monday lunchtime, but most swapped their beds in the middle of the night for terminal four yesterday to hail the team that had achieved England's greatest sporting victory since 1966.

Normally law-abiding motorists abandoned their vehicles on verges and sprinted to the arrivals lounge. Either the time was too early or the occasion too happy to issue them with tickets.

But, unlike Saturday's agonising extra-time win over Australia, the players did not keep their fans waiting. British Airways' newly christened Sweet Chariot touched down 25 minutes early at 4.30am.

To a cacophony of anthems approaching the decibel level at a Twickenham international match, Clive Woodward, the England coach, and the loose forward Neil Back were the first to emerge in the arrivals hall - but the expectant chants of "Jonny! Jonny!" told you they were the warm-up act for the new megastar of British sport.

Few could have caught even a glimpse of Jonny Wilkinson, the diminutive fly-half, as he was shepherded by police the few yards into the waiting team coach, but that did not seem to wipe the smile from a single red-and-white-painted face.

"The moment the game finished on Saturday morning I decided I had to come here with my friends. What the team have achieved is phenomenal and totally deserved," said a hoarse Laura Wilkinson, 29.

She arrived at 2am with fellow London firefighter Leanne Radford and Olly Sell, a teacher. They amused themselves in the small hours playing rugby with a cuddly toy kangaroo belonging to one of the several university clubs who spent all night at the airport.

Mark Covus from Maidenhead, Berkshire, arrived with his infant son, Matthew strapped on his back, just in time to see the players board their coach. "I've come to see the best team in the world. I've been a rugby fan for 18 years and wanted to see Martin Johnson [the captain] and Jonny Wilkinson." His wife, Helen, added: "'Jonny kick ball' were the first words our son learnt."

At around 5.30 the team's bus inched out of the airport, cheered by fans in the multi-storey car park and greeted with toots from the pre-dawn commuter traffic on the 25-mile journey to a final press conference at a hotel frequently used by the team in Bagshot.

Woodward, the first out in front of 150 media alongside his captain and star player, said: "When we came to the airport this morning that was something very, very special. It's starting to fully sink in what we have actually done. The whole country should be very proud of what we have achieved."

After two months ordering his players not to rise to the bait of their chief tormenter, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, Woodward told its reporter: "You can tell your readers that England is a very, very passionate sporting country. Far more than Australia in my opinion, and I lived there for five years."

Wilkinson, 24, who said before leaving for Australia eight weeks ago that he wished to "slam the door shut" on publicity once he returned from the World Cup, was asked whether that was still a possibility judging by the morning's events.

The Newcastle Falcons player, who dates a model and is likely to have a mountain of sponsorship offers to mull over, said: "Above all I am desperately keen to maintain the lifestyle I have to prepare for what I love doing. I don't want to lose that and I will desperately try to never let anything get in the way of that. I'm about working hard so I can enjoy my game on the weekend and the only way of [achieving that] is making sure I've got no regrets from the way I've prepared and performed.

"I want to try and do anything that everyone wants, but I want to maintain my enjoyment of life."

Amid questions about dubious refereeing decisions and scrum formations, the more serious issue remained whether the squad had managed to drink the extra beer provided for their 22-hour flight and other details of sky-high partying. Lawrence Dallaglio, no stranger to pitfalls of the media, grinned and replied that they had not sung "Waltzing Matilda". Will Greenwood confirmed that "David Boon's record was still in tact", referring to the Tasmanian cricketer reportedly drinking 40 cans of amber nectar on a flight to an Ashes tour in England.

It was Greenwood, the grammar school-educated Harlequins player, who exemplified how articulate are rugby's elite compared with their footballing counterparts.

Greenwood's infant son, Harry, died just over a year ago and he flew back to England during the tournament after his wife, Caro, suffered complications during pregnancy. Asked about his strength through adversity, he said: "It's obviously something that I have had to live with for the past 14 months and I try to [cope] the best I can.

"Rugby is a real release for me. When you have 75 minutes on the clock and you are playing Australia in a World Cup final, that's when you are at your most natural, you're doing what you love. But every break in play my little boy Freddie is always there and in my thoughts and I had some special thoughts for him when I collected the medal.

"But I'm not the only one in the side who has had heartache. We are 30 tough guys who have been through good times and bad times and we just keep getting up and asking for more. That's the sort of spirit that won it through in extra time. We are strong men, whether you count that as a rugby player or as a person."