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 International Airport to greet the team.
South Africa edged greatest rivals New Zealand 12-11 in a gripping final in Paris last Saturday to achieve back-to-back titles and to become the first team to win four titles.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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 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.
Ibrahim Peters, 35, said: “It means the world to us, we go through a lot in South Africa, but those Springboks bring us all together.”
The team will be in Durban on Saturday for the trophy tour. The KwaZulu-Natal provincial government said the Springboks will be welcomed by Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube, eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda and the MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture Dr Ntuthuko Mahlaba.
“The celebratory procession will commence at approximately 09h00 in uMhlanga, proceed through KwaMashu before winding its way towards the picturesque Durban Beachfront before culminating at the City Hall balcony, where the coveted Webb Ellis Cup will be proudly displayed.”