The day No 10 paid a visit to No 10, and all England paid tribute to its rugby heroes

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Life-changing? Yes. Personality-changing? Definitely not. As confidently predicted by those who have witnessed the rise and rise of the England rugby team over the past four years, London's West End saw plenty of the irrepressible Matthew Dawson yesterday, but precious little of the determinedly anonymous Richard Hill. Martin Johnson was sheepish, Phil Vickery was a barrel of laughs and Will Greenwood was eloquence on legs. As for Jonny Wilkinson - well, he took it one wave at a time, having spent an entire week practising his hand movements.

"I never thought I'd see the day when I had the streets of London all to myself," said a smitten Lawrence Dallaglio, the long-serving loose forward who grew up in these parts before being packed off to boarding school and pointed in the direction of a rugby field, rather than a football pitch, for the first time in his life. "If you can't enjoy this, what can you enjoy?"

And enjoy it they all did - even Johnson, even Wilkinson, honest-to-goodness sportsmen who never sought the spotlight or coveted the trappings of fame and barely know how to deal with the after-shock of World Cup victory, except to say: "This is fantastic, but isn't there a training session we should be attending?"

OK, what Wilkinson really said was: "We're overwhelmed by all this support. It matters so much to us to know that everyone's behind the cause and what we're doing. Being on this bus now is one of the greatest moments of my life."

But his reasons for turning down £1m to appear in Hello! probably told a more accurate story. "It's just a personal decision," Wilkinson said. "There's nothing bad about being involved in that sort of thing, I am just not comfortable with it. I like to be very private at home."

And after the bus-top parade, after the visit to the palace and to No 10 - where Wilkinson, at least, must have felt at home - they headed back to their clubs, via Dallaglio's boozy testimonial dinner in Battersea, to prepare for another tortuous few hours on the tackle-bags.

The rugby player's lot has never been a particularly comfortable one - too much physical trauma, too many visits to the orthopaedic surgeon - and even this unprecedented celebration had its reality checks. Dallaglio's handshakes were exclusively of the left-handed variety, for his right was swollen to twice its normal size. Joe Worsley's left thumb was broken, while Josh Lewsey smiled for the cameras with 11 stiches in the back of his head. All three were hurt during the Heineken Cup match between Wasps and Perpignan that took place some 18 hours before the start of the drive-past. It may be a rewarding life, but it claims its pound of flesh.

As a result, the humour is sharp, pointed and very loaded - and yesterday the joking was unusually wicked. "Mike Tindall is particularly looking forward to having tea with the in-laws," pronounced Ben Cohen, referring to the Bath centre's recent night out with Zara Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal. "Look, there's nothing going on," Tindall retorted, red-faced. "We ended up drinking together after the final and I was invited to a ball. I agreed to go because I'd never been to a ball before." All completely innocent, then. Cohen, for one, remained unconvinced.

Having planned their World Cup campaign with a precision that beggared belief, it was no surprise that the red rose army got it exactly right again yesterday. Clive Woodward, the head coach, could have joined his players on the lead bus, but opted to remain on the second vehicle, with the rest of the backroom staff. "The players won this thing," he explained, nodding in the direction of the Webb Ellis Cup. "It's their day. I just wish I hadn't made my 'no coats on the bus' call. It was bloody cold out there." Woodward has avoided talk of retirements and personnel changes in advance of the Six Nations' Championship, which begins in February. But he is thinking about how to approach the tournament, nevertheless. He has given himself a deadline for his celebration of this achievement, England's first truly meaningful world title for 37 years. Come New Year's Day only the next match will matter.

"My mindset will change on 1 January," he said. "As a coaching team and a support staff, we have to make all the right decisions to ensure whoever plays for England has the best chance of winning. I suppose one or two of the older players might think 'Okay, we've achieved the ultimate, so what now?' But I'm clear about my role. It's fantastic to be a part of this, obviously, but I have a career to think about and I do not intend to stand still. If things stagnate, you'll soon notice it out on the pitch. And defeats will mean changes, not least in my own position. It's a brutal business."

Of all the captains of all the teams in all the world, Johnson understands and revels in that brutality. He is not among the cherubhim and seraphim of international sport; quite the opposite, according to those who see him as the devil incarnate. But this dark-eyed Midlander was genuinely moved by the numbers who emerged from Tube stations and shops and offices to grant him their blessing. If he never plays for England again - and there are many who suspect he won't - he will retire a happy man.

"We sit there in our own little world, preparing for a game of rugby, without having the faintest idea of the effect we're having on the people who watch our game," he said. "This is absolutely mind-blowing. I just hope more people will turn to rugby as a result of what we've achieved. It's not a matter of being a 'football person' or a 'rugby person'; it's possible to watch both sports and get something from them. I've always believed that a big percentage of the population would enjoy rugby if they allowed themselves to get into it, and I think that will happen now. But we can't waste too much time worrying about it, can we? There are club games to be played."

As a wake-up call to his colleagues, it was pretty good. But not as good as Cohen's, whose Uncle George had won a World Cup winners' medal with the England football team in 1966. "George told me on the eve of the final that one game could change my life, and he was right," said the Northampton wing. "But some things never change. When I ran out of the tunnel at Llanelli last Friday night, the first thing I heard was a Welsh voice shouting: 'Eff off, you ?*@$!%.' It seems I'm back in the old routine."

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