Thousands of South Africans braved cold, wet weather to greet the Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks when they arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
Many wore green and gold, the colours of the national team, as they filled every available space at OR Tambo airport to greet the record four-time world champions.
South Africa edged greatest rivals New Zealand 12-11 in a gripping final in Paris last Saturday to achieve back-to-back titles after also winning the 1995 and 2007 title deciders.
Supporters cheered in unison as captain Siya Kolisi emerged into the public area, waved at the crowd while holding the Webb Ellis Cup, and took selfies with jubilant supporters.
“Thank you to the people of South Africa. We have had a long and tough 20 weeks, but it was worth it,” said Kolisi, a loose forward and the first black Test captain of the Springboks.
“This triumph has been six years in the planning. Winning the World Cup in 2019 was an unexpected bonus as the ultimate goal was always to be champions in 2023.”
Many waved signs reading “Bokke (Springboks), a bunch of winners”, as loud music played in the background creating a party atmosphere. A band played the national anthem.
The latest success brought joy to a country battling unemployment, electricity, water and crime crises.
Rugby is one of the three most popular sports in South Africa, but the only one to regularly deliver trophies.
The football team has not triumphed since winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations while the cricket side has yet to win a world title in any format.
“We love them so much, they made us proud,” said Excellent George, 42, who was at the airport with her Springbok-flag-holding husband Rudy.
“With our country having a lot of problems, sport, and especially rugby, bring us together,” she added.
Susan, a 56-year-old accountant who preferred to give only her first name, said she took a day off work to see her heroes up close.
Like many in the country she said she saw the team as a unifying force able to bridge racial and social divides in the country.
“I just could not miss it,” she said wearing a green and gold fleece jacket and flanked by a friend sporting a similar outfit.
“We have players from all backgrounds, all races and watching those people on the field just brings us so much hope. It gives me goosebumps just to think about it,” she said.
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