Huge crowds hail their heroes

Greg Stutchbury

TENS of thousands of people flooded onto the streets of downtown Auckland today to celebrate the end of a 24-year drought after the All Blacks beat France in the Rugby World Cup final.

New Zealand had not won the Webb Ellis trophy since the inaugural tournament in 1987 and were forced to dig deep in yesterday's final as they rode a wave of emotion across the rugby-mad country of four million to scratch out an 8-7 victory at a packed Eden Park.

With today a public holiday in New Zealand, the collective hangover of the country's largest city was still palpable on the streets as thousands of people gathered early for the victors' parade, mixing with stragglers making their way home from festivities.

Crowds were banked 20-deep in places along the parade's route in central Auckland as the procession kicked off with players, coaches and support staff ferried along city streets in open-deck utility vehicles.

"This is very special. I can't believe how many people are out here... This is just awesome," said All Blacks fly-half Daniel Carter, whose tournament finished early with a torn groin tendon.

Today's joyous outpouring left the players amazed by the turn-out.

"It's a great day. It's so fantastic. Just shows how much it means to everyone in New Zealand and it's great to be part of it," said scrum-half Andy Ellis, who kicked the ball into touch to end the final and a generation of frustration. Captain Richie McCaw and coach Graham Henry paraded the Webb Ellis trophy in the final car, with veterans Brad Thorn and Mils Muliaina and assistant coach Wayne Smith, all of whom ended their All Blacks careers at the tournament.

The team will be feted in further parades this week.

New Zealand's second largest city of Christchurch, which lost the right to host seven World Cup games after a devastating earthquake in February, will hail them tomorrow before they head to Wellington the following day.

"It means everything (to get the support of the people).

"You dream of this as a little kid and for it to come true is unreal," said fly-half Aaron Cruden, who went off in the final with a knee injury. "New Zealand, we love you."