JOHANNESBURG (AP) – The Springboks returned to a heroes’ welcome in South Africa on Tuesday after retaining their Rugby World Cup title with a narrow 12-11 win over the New Zealand All Blacks in the final in France last weekend.
Thousands of supporters braved the cold and wet weather to gather at OR Tambo International Airport to welcome the Springboks, the first national team to lift the World Cup four times.
The crowds went into a frenzy as captain Siya Kolisi entered the arrivals terminal hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy surrounded by the rest of his teammates.
Many of the fans wore their green and gold Springboks jerseys, waved South African flags and held up placards bearing congratulatory messages for the squad.
Supporters wearing Springbok jerseys or any South African colours were allowed to travel for free on the Gautrain train service to the airport, where traffic leading to the main terminals was jammed throughout the morning.
A police band performed the national anthem and other iconic South African songs to welcome the squad back into the country.
The Springboks arrived the day after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa officially declared a public holiday for December 15 to honour the team’s victory.
“We declare this to be a day of hope, a day of celebration and unity,” he said.
A four-day victory parade starting Thursday has been planned to celebrate the Boks’ victory, with stops in the major cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, where supporters will get a glimpse of the Webb Ellis trophy.
Kolisi, who has become a cult figure of sorts after leading the team to back-to-back World Cup titles in Japan and France, was among the players who received the loudest cheers from the fans.
“This means a lot to the country because rugby always unites us even though the country is facing so many problems, it’s a special moment for us,” supporter Joseph Malherbe said.
South Africa missed the first two editions of the Rugby World Cup because of apartheid era sanctions.
The Springboks hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup and won it on home soil in a remarkable debut in the tournament, edging New Zealand in extra time in the final. Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey, famously presented the trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar.
The Springboks have now won it four times from eight appearances, an incredible 50 per cent strike rate. New Zealand, with three titles, and Australia, with two, are the only other multiple winners of rugby’s biggest prize.
The All Blacks arrived home Wednesday, to a new era in New Zealand rugby.
Head coach Ian Foster’s contract ended with the World Cup final, and Crusaders head coach Scott “Razor” Robertson was hired to take his place even before the world tournament began.
Many of the team’s World Cup starters are leaving, mostly to take up contracts in Japan, including flyhalves Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett. Captain Sam Cane, who became the first player to receive a red card in a World Cup final when he was sent off for a high tackle, plans to continue.
Cane told reporters at Auckland Airport the red card would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“The last three weeks in total, the support, it’s something I haven’t experienced as an All Black, and that’s from halfway around the world,” he said.
Foster hasn’t yet decided what his next role will be.
“I got dealt a bunch of cards different to any other All Blacks coach… and I did the best I could,” he said.