Rugby World Cup: Boks get rousing send-off

South Africa's players were given a rousing send-off today as they headed for New Zealand to defend the Rugby World Cup.

Thousands of supporters wearing replica green and gold jerseys sang, danced and cheered as the team said goodbye at a square named after former president Nelson Mandela.

The upscale business and shopping district of Sandton - 20 kilometres north of central Johannesburg - ground to a halt when the Springbok stars, coaches and officials arrived.

South Africa have twice won the biggest rugby union prize and are attempting to rewrite the history books at the September 9-October 23 tournament.

The 30 stars labelled "warriors" by President Jacob Zuma three days ago hope to become the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup.

Victory in the October 23 Auckland final would also give the Springboks a record third Rugby World Cup title, lifting them above Australia's Wallabies.

While the New Zealand All Blacks, ranked number one in the world, are favoured to win a second title, Australia and South Africa are also considered capable of going all the way.

"Forward Springboks, forward," smiling sports minister Fikile Mbalula told the crowd.

"You are the pride of our nation, you stand for excellence. Go to New Zealand and fight for your country. There are 50 million of us behind you," he roared to sustained applause.

John Smit, the hooker who skippered South Africa to victory over England in the 2007 Paris final, called the public farewell "truly humbling.

"We feel a heavy responsibility to all of you. Your support will keep us going. You will be in our hearts and minds as we battle for glory far from home," he promised.

Coach Peter de Villiers said gazing at thousands of Springbok supporters packed into a square ranked among the most humbling moments of his life.

"We are taking responsibility for bringing the Rugby World Cup back and know that 50 million South Africans are behind us," said the first black coach of the team.

The defending champions are scheduled to arrive late Friday in Wellington, where the title defence begins on September 11 against Wales.

Pacific islands sides Fiji and Samoa and tournament no-hopers. Namibia complete Pool D with the top two finishers qualifying for the quarter-finals.

- AFP

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