21 December 2003

England’s homecoming was more a party than a true exhibition match

It had been the wettest morning since . . . well, since Jonny Wilkinson dropped the goal and we began to believe that nothing could ever be the same again. Yesterday’s World Cup celebration was a reminder that rain at Twickenham is rather colder than Sydney, and that after this last and greatest acclamation English rugby must now put the awards season into the video tray.

It didn’t stop raining until 2pm. There were puddles in the forecourts, mud in the car parks, a fair bit of carping among the purists about the purpose of it all, and images on the TV of “Johnno” and company battering each other senseless as Leicester played Northampton a hundred miles to the north. But 75,000 had bought their tickets to salute their heroes even if most of them would not arrive until this actual match was over. There was never the slightest chance of echoing the My Fair Lady line of “Let’s call the whole thing off”.

The gathering gloom and the loudspeaker music gave a carol service atmosphere only added to by the matching fashion accessory of a red winking Father Christmas hat atop the wrap around flag of St George. In a move of marketing genius someone had got a lookalike England team bus from the London trip of a fortnight ago, put a cardboard cut out of Jonny, and Jason and Johnno holding the cup aloft on the front with space enough for every punter to stand between them and have their picture taken. When we moved to pitch-side you wondered how soon other such photo opportunities would be offered.

The wind howled round the corners, but you knew the warmth was going to come as opera singer Tommy Henry (no relation to Graham) took the crowd through Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and a really strong version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It was maybe necessary for Clive Woodward and others to be a bit serious about this match, but the crowds knew why they were here. They were here to sing, to dance, to remember where they were and what it meant when it all happened a full four weeks ago.

The floodlights added the correct sense of theatricality to it. The sunset had long drained out of the sky and as Richard Hill led the England team on to the pitch no one in the stadium needed to doubt that this was the festive occasion the faithful had always dreamed about. Even the giant TV screen got infected and was still showing one of Jonny’s penalties as the national anthem started.

The biggest seller beforehand had been red on white `TRY’ placards. When Paul Grayson elected to kick in front of the posts rather than run it after three minutes there were a few good-natured boos. In this mood placard waving would not be long delayed. When Mike Tindall went over in the final minute to make it six tries and 42 points to the Barbarians’ 17 points, you might have thought that they had almost waved themselves out. But the party was only about to begin.

First, 50 squaddies ran up to the east touch-line and pulled out a huge Saint George’s flag to completely cover the pitch. It was to be the palms beneath our heroes’ feet. At last they came, Lawrence Dallaglio in front in a suit, Richard Hill still in shorts covered in blood, Josh Lewsey and Iain Balshaw on crutches, and Jonny Wilkinson trying to be anonymous at the back but unable to keep that benign smile from his face. Finally there was Martin Johnson in black executive overcoat carrying the cup. Great sprays of pink streamers burst upward and the loudspeakers boomed: We Are The Champions.

Slowly the whole team circled the stadium applauding the crowd as the cheers rang down. Jason Leonard’s massive chest looked as if it would burst out of his jacket with pride. It was so good we hoped this victory lap would never finish, but back at the entrance another rendering of Jerusalem almost brought the house down. There were 50-cap presentations to Kyran Bracken and Wilkinson, before everyone roared as Leonard took a special bow for his record-breaking 113. It was cold, but for a few glorious shared minutes this little bit of England was the happiest it has ever been.

Last Sunday morning at our local playing field, a little boy stood in front of the uprights, hands clasped like Wilkinson. The kick was scuffed to the left but the boy immediately ran after it and tried again. Last night made us remember that this is the rugby dream that should never die.

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