Johannesburg — 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.”
The #Springboks are back in South Africa 🥳🇿🇦🏆#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/IBYKzlXxfn
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 31, 2023
Kolisi, 32, will soon join French Top 14 club Racing 92 on a three-year contract and he told reporters he would still be available for the Springboks if selected.
“It does not matter if I am the captain or a player. The coaches will decide that. I am but one of many leaders in this wonderful team.”
Springbok captains have always been based in South Africa so that they can fulfil commercial and social obligations.
Head coach Jacques Nienaber, who is leaving the Springboks to join Irish outfit Leinster, said it was “an unbelievable privilege” to be in charge of the champions.
“I knew most of these players when they were naughty youngsters. Many are fathers now with children. South Africa should be so proud of them.
“The toughest part of my job in France was telling players that they were not in the matchday 23, but they took it like men. This is a very special group.”
Many supporters 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.
[WATCH] Newzroom Afrika’s @MichelleL_Craig speaks to excited fans at the O.R. Tambo International Airport ahead of World Champions the #Springboks‘ return from the #RWC2023 in France. The team is expected to touch down on home soil at 10h55.#Newzroom405 pic.twitter.com/jaQI3TBeBW
— Newzroom Afrika (@Newzroom405) October 31, 2023
“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 sees 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.
“We are the world champions,” said Ibrahim Peters, 35, a teacher, as he held his six-year-old daughter in his arms.
“It means the world to us, we go through a lot in South Africa, but those Springboks bring us all together.”
The champions will begin a tour of various cities on Thursday by visiting Pretoria, Johannesburg and Soweto.
They go to Cape Town on Friday, Durban on Saturday and East London on Sunday, with thousands expected to line streets and greet a team that has captured the hearts of a nation.
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