Jason Leonard: England's great prop idol finds little respite in retirement

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Jason Leonard played in two rugby union World Cup finals and has subsequently watched neither of them. Which is less surprising in the case of England's 1991 defeat by Australia, than in the case of England's remarkable victory, over the same opponents, which unfolded one year ago today.

Jason Leonard played in two rugby union World Cup finals and has subsequently watched neither of them. Which is less surprising in the case of England's 1991 defeat by Australia, than in the case of England's remarkable victory, over the same opponents, which unfolded one year ago today.

But that's just the way Leonard is. He spends little time physically looking back, partly because of the serious neck injury he once sustained, and partly because of the way nature bolted his head on to such vast shoulders. And figuratively he doesn't do much of it, either. "With that 1991 final I'd have been gutted to watch it afterwards, and after a few weeks you think how relevant is it anyway? To a degree it's the same with last year's final." A broad, rather lovely smile. "Although I wouldn't be gutted watching that, obviously."

Obviously. Meanwhile, those who have repeatedly watched it and talked about it and written about it, are aware that there were many ingredients in Clive Woodward's recipe for World Cup success, which so dramatically reached the boil in Sydney on the evening of 22 November 2003. And not least among them was Leonard's vast experience.

Indeed, once he had entered the epic fray at the start of extra time, his rugby brain arguably played an even bigger part than Jonny Wilkinson's rugby boot in bringing home the Webb Ellis Cup.

Leonard is not a man given to self-aggrandisement. You don't have to be when you're a 19st national hero and the most capped forward in international rugby history. But the matter-of-fact way in which he tells it leaves no doubt. Rightly or wrongly, the referee Andre Watson was slapping penalties on the England pack like a deranged traffic warden, and the appalling spectre of defeat was looming larger and larger. Leonard, on the bench for the first 80 minutes, felt like he alone could slay it.

"It was hard for our forwards," he recalls. "Our scrum was such a dominant force and it was being nullified. A lot of red mist had descended, and I don't suppose the referee was getting an easy time of it from guys like Johnno (Martin Johnson), Lawrence (Dallaglio), and Matt Dawson. He obviously thought 'sod it'. He could have been more lenient, given free-kicks instead of penalties, or just reset the scrum, but he thought 'no, they're mucking me around'. Most of the infringements he called, he was right to call. It still gets to me, this question of the referee. If we'd lost because of Andre Watson it would have been a travesty, but we didn't. I never had a problem with him."

From the sidelines, Leonard could see exactly what was required.

"I knew it would go against every sinew and fibre in the bodies of two very talented props like Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery to let Australia win their ball, but that's what had to be done. I was standing next to the guys with the radio mikes, connected to the coaches in the box, and our lead was getting cut back and cut back. I was saying, 'Get me on! Get me on! We're going to lose this game! Get me on!' When they drew level, at 17-all, Clive obviously thought the same. When he said to me 'you're on' I said something like, 'about 20 minutes too late!'''

Leonard's "something like" is a polite euphemism for some fairly choice Anglo-Saxon, it seems reasonable to assume. Big men from Barking, which is like neighbouring Dagenham only less genteel, tend not to mince their words. Whatever, he lumbered on in place of Vickery and immediately set about sorting things out.

"I said to Trevor, 'let 'em win their ball'. That's alien to a prop, basically to say 'don't push'. But something had to change. And I knew they weren't going to score even if they won their ball. We'd just stop them 10 or 20 yards further on. But the one thing we couldn't defend against was kicks at goal, and (Elton) Flatley was kicking everything like a dream. I said to the referee, 'Andre, you won't have a problem with me. I'll go forwards or backwards, but I won't go up and I won't go down'. He said, 'I won't have a problem with that at all, Jason'. And we gave no more penalties away after that."

The great man shifts slightly in his seat, which is easier said than done when you are, to all intents and purposes, wedged. We are talking in a plush bedroom at The Grove, a swish hotel and country club on the outskirts of Watford. Leonard is here to attend a black-tie charity dinner organised by Saracens RFC. "The trouble with black tie is that it makes me look like bloody Oddjob," he grumbles, cheerfully.

Oddjob, however, was not as tough. Leonard played top-level rugby for 16 years before his retirement six months ago. That would be remarkable enough for a scrum-half, the epée of the side; for a prop, the battering-ram, it defies belief. International rugby's next most capped prop, the retired Massimo Cuttita, played 69 times for Italy. Leonard was capped 114 times by England and five times by the British and Irish Lions. But what gave him such longevity was a willingness to keep pace with a rapidly evolving sport.

"I remember sitting next to Jonny Wilkinson once, when we were watching some video of the England team playing back in 1990 or 1991. I said 'look, Jonny, look at the England No 1'. And it took him about 30 seconds to say 'hang on, that's you!' I was skin and bone then, about 16 stone. I could afford to be, playing with your Probyns, your Dooleys, your Ackfords, your Teagues. But then I injured my neck, and had to bulk up a lot to aid the recovery, so I got very big.

"Then the game changed, and it became more about scrums and line-outs, so I got even bigger. Then professionalism came in and players got fitter, so I lost weight but got more powerful. The tackles were harder, the collisions tougher, the pace faster. We used to start England games at an incredible pace and get faster. Basically we were throwing down a gauntlet, saying to the other team, 'we're going to get faster and faster and one of us is going to crack, and it won't be us'. That's what we did in the World Cup. We knew we were the fittest team there."

His own fitness remains impressive, thanks to regular sessions in the gym. Whether he can maintain the necessary discipline to visit the gym three times a week now that he is about to go back into the construction industry, having started out years ago as a humble carpenter, he says he doesn't know.

"Ask me in five years," he adds, grinning, "when I'm as fat as a house or as fit as a flea."

Leonard was asked recently whether he isn't too grand now to get involved in the building game again. He just laughed and said that it offers more of what rugby gave him: hard work and great craic. Moreover, it occurs to me that he could give a customer a useful idea of what his brick outhouse is going to look like just by standing there. But the question is still valid: whether he likes it or not, the World Cup win conferred lifelong celebrity status. The past 366 days have passed in a whirl of dinners and public appearances.

"I was busy before but not like this," he says. "I'm all over the shop. For 10 years when asked to do a dinner or appearance, I could always say that I had training the next day or a match on the Saturday. Now I haven't got an excuse, and it's been quite nice to say yes all the time. But this is silly season, what with the autumn internationals and the World Cup anniversary. I've been in a meeting all day today, I'm here talking to you now, I've got a dinner tonight, something else in Derby tomorrow. No disrespect, but to a certain degree I wish I was back bloody playing."

Only to a certain degree, though. He had offers from a couple of French clubs, as well as Barking RFC, but gave them little consideration. He knew that ambitious young opposing forwards would have tried to stamp their initials on him, and he didn't much fancy it.

Besides, I venture, there must be only so many scrums and mauls that even a thumping great body like his can take.

"Yeah," he says. "In 1999 we did a lot of training with the Royal Marines, and they said, 'when we do what you do, we call it war. People die'. That had a sobering effect. You can't say that what rugby players get involved in are battles. But at the same time there are some games when your body feels like it's been taken to hell and back. Your lungs are bursting, your heart is racing, your throat is hurting from trying to suck in oxygen, your shoulder's sore, the shirt's been ripped off your back.

"And there were times when I'd made such an effort to push someone backwards, or to stop being pushed backwards myself, that I'd come out of it feeling really light-headed, actually thinking, for a split second, 'what am I doing here'? But at least if that's happening to you, you know it's happening to your opposite number."

It is understandable, in a way, that a man who played rugby with such intensity for so long is now not altogether comfortable watching it. "That might change in a couple of years," he says. "But to be honest I've never been a great watcher of rugby. I usually get down to Harlequins for the second half but if I'm honest that's because they let the kids run around on the pitch afterwards, and my boys Harry and Jack love that."

Even as a sporadic observer of rugby, however, he must have views on England's prospects in the post-Woodward era, and indeed on the front row in the post-Leonard era?

"There will be games in the next couple of years where we struggle. No doubt about it. It was the same after the 1999 World Cup, and there have been a lot of retirements this time. But if anyone can get big performances out of an England team, it's [the head coach] Andy Robinson.

"As for the front row, we've two world-class props in Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery, and Graham Rowntree's never let England down, and Julian White is without doubt one of the best tight heads in the world. Then there's Andrew Sheridan, who's converted from back row to second row to prop and is going great guns in the Zurich Premiership. And Matt Stevens, another good young player. Hopefully, in two years' time they'll all be ready for play for England and will give Andy Robinson the biggest selection nightmare a coach can have, which is everyone playing well."

It is a couple of days before England's emphatic win over South Africa. So with neither of us knowing how that match might go, I ask Leonard to consider the last of England's three autumn internationals, against Australia.

"Well, I can't remember the last time Australia actually won at Twickenham. It's not a pleasant place to play, if you're not England. And for the English players there's a real sense of duty, with all those posters in the dressing-room saying 'Fortress Twickenham' and 'do you know who stood here before you?', all that sort of thing. On the other hand, they beat us on the summer tour and the World Cup final is still a very sore memory for them, so they'll be very determined. It'll be interesting."

But will it be interesting enough for Leonard to watch? He smiles.

"Maybe," he says.

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