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Sam Burke
08-12-03, 12:12
Thousands of England supporters paid tribute to their Rugby World Cup heroes on Monday at a victory parade in central London.

The city's West End ground to a halt as the England team held aloft the golden William Webb Ellis trophy in front of a delirious crowd.

Half a million supporters were expected, making it - unofficially - the largest sporting celebration of its kind in the United Kingdom.

The scenes even eclipsed the celebrations of 33 years ago when England's football team paraded the Jules Rimet trophy.

Central London was a sea of white and red as the England team, travelling in two specially painted open top buses, began their parade at Marble Arch.

The sound of English rugby's adopted anthem 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' followed the vehicles around the city as tickertape rained down.

A beaming England coach Clive Woodward admitted he was shocked with the size of the crowd.

"This is extraordinary," he said. "I never thought I'd never see this for an England rugby team. The support for the team has been brilliant."

Drop-kick hero Jonny Wilkinson added: "It's important that we do this.

"It's great to be able to pay back the fans who travelled half way around world as well as those who stayed at home.

"We owe everyone a massive amount."

England's squad and management left Marble Arch at 1200 GMT and travelled eastbound towards Trafalgar Square, where large TV screens broadcast highlights of the 20-17 victory over Australia.

The parade caused travel delays in the West End with a number of roads closed and tube lines overcrowded.

But the problems failed to dampen the mood with England number eight Lawrence Dallaglio declaring: "This is quite a humbling experience.

"Today is particularly significant. It's a chance for us English to put ourselves on the back.

"Everyone's very proud and very patriotic and today's an opportunity for the fans to show that."

Following the Sweet Chariot victory parade, the England players will travel to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace before moving on to a reception with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Full-back Josh Lewsey admitted he was nervous about the event.

"My mother's told me not to slurp from the tea cup," he said.

"But this is great isn't it? We play rugby week in week out but this is special. This is for the people."

Sports Minister Richard Caborn earlier said England's victory could help to kick start a sporting revolution.

"We are now in a position where we can encourage a lot more people back into sport," he said.

"This gives us a great opportunity to build on what England achieved at the World Cup."

On the eve of the parade an Australian minister made a public appeal for rugby fans to "do the right thing" and return the Rugby World Cup final's match-winning ball to England.

The last time the ball was seen was when Wikinson slotted it through the posts in Sydney for a last-minute drop goal.

But on Sunday, the minister for sport in Australia's largest state, New South Wales, Sandra Nori said: "The ball may have been taken by an Aussie, equally it could have been a Pom.

"Regardless, on behalf of the people of Sydney and NSW, I implore, in the spirit of fair-play, whomever has the ball to do the right thing and find a way of returning it."