After a week of celebrations, interviews and photoshoots from Sydney to Heathrow, Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson, drop-goal hero and captain respectively of England's Rugby World Cup winners in Australia, rose to the occasion once again.
As English rugby began its long journey back to normality with four Zurich Premiership matches yesterday afternoon, the England fly-half and his back-row colleague Lawrence Dallaglio took centre stage to parade the Webb Ellis Cup in front of a capacity 10,000 crowd at Kingston Park before the match between their clubs, Newcastle and Wasps.
Neither Wilkinson nor Dallaglio were required to turn out for yesterday's game, won 23-20 by visitors Wasps, but Johnson rolled his sleeves up and played for the whole of the second half as a replacement for his England team-mate Ben Kay in Leicester's 13-12 home defeat by runaway leaders and long-standing rivals Bath.
Wilkinson and Dallaglio received a standing ovation from every corner of Newcastle's ground as their slow march to the strains of England's anthem, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", delayed the kick-off by 15 minutes. "This is an amazing reception," Wilkinson said. "I couldn't believe it when we came out. I'm overwhelmed by the support. It was a marvellous experience but it's really great to be back and I'm glad that Lawrence is with me."
Wilkinson is earmarked to return to Newcastle's colours next Sunday in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup match against Spanish club Valladolid, and No 8 Dallaglio is expected to captain Wasps the same day in their Heineken Cup opener against Perpignan at High Wycombe.
Meanwhile, Wasps welcomed back three other England squad members yesterday - Simon Shaw, Stuart Abbott and Joe Worsley - along with fly-half Alex King, who missed out on the World Cup due to injury and had not played for the club since last season's Zurich Championship final.
Of the 19 players who participated in England's most memorable sporting fixture since 1966, a total of eight turned out for their clubs yesterday with mixed fortunes. Apart from Johnson, who came on to a rousing reception from the 16,815 spectators packed into Welford Road, all 10 members of the England squad from the two clubs made an appearance at some stage, although two of them - the Leicester back-row forward Lewis Moody and Bath's fly-half Mike Catt - were forced off prematurely with injuries.
Mike Tindall played the last 55 minutes in place of Catt and Neil Back stood in when Moody went off in the 43rd minute. Martyn Wood, the Bath scrum-half who was flown out as potential cover early in the World Cup, was sent off for stamping and the game ended in near silence, in contrast to the opening stages, when Ramiro Pez fluffed a penalty kick in the last minute which would have earned Leicester a memorable win.
Perhaps the biggest cheer of the afternoon came from the 11,000 sell-out crowd at Kingsholm when the England prop Trevor Woodman, who had come on only a few minutes earlier, barged through four tackles to score a brilliant individual try which set up Gloucester's 28-20 victory over Northampton. Woodman's front-row comrade Phil Vickery also came off the bench during the game which was sat out by three of Saints' four England men.
The England coach Clive Woodward watched Harl-equins' 16-9 home defeat by Leeds at The Stoop yesterday. He waved vigorously to the 7,123 spectators but declined to speak. Two of Quins' England forwards, world-record cap-holder Jason Leonard and hooker Mark Regan, came on in the second half but to little avail for their club.
Richard Hill is set to start Saracens' home game against Rotherham today while Jason Robinson sits out Sale's visit to London Irish. But all the England players can look forward to a busy time over the next few days. During the coming week, they are due to be fêted by the Sports Journalists' Association, the BBC, the Queen and the Prime Minister as well as hundreds of thousands of well-wishers in central London.
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