JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - World Cup winners South Africa were greeted by thousands of supporters of all races at Johannesburg International Airport when they returned home from Paris on Tuesday.
A cheering, dancing crowd waited several hours for their heroes to arrive and Springboks captain John Smit, who led his side to a 15-6 win over England in Saturday’s final, said the reception had surpassed all expectations.
“We expected it to be pretty busy at the airport but this has gone far beyond anything we imagined,” Smit told a news conference.
“We’re just happy that we have brought the trophy back where it belongs, with the people of South Africa.”
Coach Jake White said the reception showed just how important the World Cup triumph was for the people of South Africa.
“When we won in 1995, I was a young schoolmaster and we all understand what a major, massive time that was for our country,” he said.
”We’ve had this opportunity twice, some countries never have it. It’s like the birth of your second child, we’ve been given another chance as a nation.
”The challenge is, whatever mistakes we’ve made between 1995 and 2007, we need to make sure we don’t make them again.
“The challenge is not just for SA Rugby but for the country as a whole.”
White added that widely reported political interference had never threatened the unity of the squad in France.
“The only utterances I heard from politicians were positive,” he said.
”When we left, (South Africa) President Mbeki said to me: ‘don’t worry about political agendas, just go and win the World Cup’.
“I guess when the president speaks, you listen, so here it is,” White said, pointing to the William Webb Ellis trophy in front of him and Smit.
Deputy Sports Minister Gert Oosthuizen echoed White’s words on nation-building.
”These heroes have put out a positive message that we are a winning nation. They have proved that South Africa is united in our diversity and they have made us proud.
“They have demonstrated the power of sport to break down language barriers. We must take this momentum forward,” Oosthuizen said.
Smit said the full impact of being world champions had yet to sink in.
“When the final whistle blew, it would be remiss to try and put that moment into words, I was speechless. I just dropped to my knees to thank the Lord above for what he’s given me and the team,” the hooker said.
“It will take time to sink in. Winning the World Cup took a lifetime to work for, and it will take a lifetime to sink in.”
The Springboks will be back in the limelight again on Friday when a series of parades begin in Johannesburg and Pretoria.