18 November 2001

The world’s most-capped forward reveals the ideals which help to keep him on England’s front line

The tries were coming thick and fast at Twickenham yesterday, but it made little difference to Jason Leonard. The stalwart prop played his usual game, grafting in the tight and working hard around the fringes as he became the world’s most capped forward with the minimum of fuss.

So one-sided was the game that England scored more points against the outclassed Romanians than Leonard has caps, but his 93rd appearance will be cherished every bit as much as any other by the man who always gives his all for his country.

Passing the great Sean Fitzpatrick’s number of games for New Zealand has thrust Leonard into the limelight, and he must be close to losing count of the number of interviews he has done. But you could bet your house that there wasn’t a cheap shot in any of them. Jason Leonard is in serious danger of giving sport a good name.

Leonard is a phenomenon, and not just as the most extraordinary 5 ft 10in, 17½ st prop forward that England has ever seen. He overcame major neck surgery eight years ago to become, at 33, the most capped forward in rugby history in this most confrontational of positions. After a full 11 seasons of dark deeds in the very pit of the scrum, after those early “old fart” years when the RFU would not even insure England players “because the premiums would be too expensive”, you would think he would have a few scores to settle. Think again.

“There would not be one person in the world I would hold a grudge against,” said Leonard, his off-pitch East Ender face even more sunnily open than ever. “Of course you have the odd run-in from time to time but it all tends to come out in the wash in the games. It all stops when that whistle blows full-time. And afterwards you go into the bar and try to pick out your opposite number to have a drink with him.”

Such an attitude may not bring high serialisation fees for the excellent tome he has produced with Alison Kervin, but it does give us a much-needed reminder about the nature of sport. Not from some soft gentlemanly way: in his very first international `The Boy from Barking’ earned his stripes in a full-on fight against a still Falklands-sore Argentina in July 1990. No, the lesson from Leonard is one from which he has never wavered. “You do sport because you love to compete. But above all you do it because you enjoy it,” he said.

He is looking good on it. The right ear was cauliflowered long ago and there is a small scar that runs across the bridge of the nose. But the rest of him is extraordinarily undamaged, considering the battering his body must have been through, and he did not have to search for reasons for his longevity.

“It’s the enjoyment,” he said, “you do actually enjoy coming back into this environment and seeing the players. It’s great being at Quins and I enjoy the boys’ company there. But once you come to England you get the chance of meeting boys you have not seen for eight to 10 weeks. A lot of us have kids now and so we catch up with families and stuff. That is the friendship side. That is what keeps you going.”

On the page the words can seem a touch bland, predictable even. But this is Jason Leonard speaking: the hyped-up figure with the headband singing the national anthem as if his life depended on it, shoulder to shoulder with Brian Moore and Jeff Probyn in those early days; the short-stepping rhinoceros run as he thuds into contact and recycles the ball. You trust him never to take a backward step.

You trust him, more than anyone else alive, to put contact sport into context. To sell books, newspapers and TV ratings (remember Martin Johnson’s pre-tour Lions’ fangs advert in summer?), rugby gets glorified and then vilified as the most dangerous, violent thing men can do to each other without putting a knife in their hands. So how do you square being an apparent psychopath on the pitch and this open, friendly, universally loved figure off it?

“It can be a bit of a rough old game,” said Leonard in his gentle, I-don’t-have-to-boast tones, “but there is a line and as far as I am concerned you don’t cross it. You don’t think of the opponent as a person, but as a shirt. He’s the opposition and for 80 minutes you want to knock 10 bells out of him.”

But for Leonard it is not as rough as it was. “There is a massive deterrent now,” he said. “Not just the referee, but the touch judges, the video evidence, the citing commission, even spectators can pull you up if you do something stupid. “And it’s so fast and furious nowadays that you don’t have time to think `oh, all right, I’ll give this boy a little knock here’ because the ball has already gone.”

But it’s still a tough enough life for Leonard to prefer his two sons, Harry and Jack, to go into golf or tennis. “I can see myself carrying their bags to Florida or somewhere nice,” he said. “But I would never stop them. Harry [three] is quite athletic, might play on the wing. Jack [already 20lb at six months) looks like he could be the whole front row.”

Professional sport has plenty of things to be concerned about, just one or two to celebrate. Like Jason Leonard.

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