How Leonard raised the spirit level

Owen Slot studies the captaincy qualities of a respected leader
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The Independent Online
THE last day of the last league season will, for Harlequins' players, linger long in the memory. In beating Gloucester, they saved a thousand blushes and their place in the First Division and in the subsequent toasts, they bade a premature adieu to their captain Brian Moore who was prematurely retiring. But even now, they remember a minor act of courage - stupidity perhaps - that took place on the field.

It was the second half and victory looked assured when Jason Leonard pulled up with a hamstring strain. An England player, only 16 days away from departing for South Africa, would have been expected to leave the field, but Leonard insisted on staying. "I'm not saying it's right to put your international career on the line," said Jim Staples, who also played for Quins that day, "but the players respected that. You can make any number of dressing-room speeches, but it's acts like that which people remember."

Five months on, we find the Quins in a very different position. They are unbeaten in five matches, a start which all agree has been fuelled by a determination to avoid the horrors of the recent past. And they are without Leonard, though there is also a recognition that his captaincy, albeit from the touchline with an injured shoulder, has played a considerable part too.

Leonard, as is his wont, deflects any praise - "A captain doesn't win games week in week out, it's the players," is his instant reaction - though Dick Best, the Harlequins director of coaching, disagrees. "He has been a very big part of it. His interpersonal skills - team-building, male- bonding - are of the very highest order," he said.

Leonard, it seems, could possibly have been Harlequins captain long before this season. He has been approached to stand for the job before, but each time he declined the offer as he felt another nominee better suited. Towards the end of last season though, and with no other obvious candidate available, Best and Keith Richardson, the coach, beseeched him this time to fill the breach. They gave him time to think it over and, "when he did come in to the equation", Best said, "it was a godsend".

"Some people need to be captains," is Leonard's viewpoint, "they like the glamour. I've never been one of those, but if the players around me want me to be captain, then that's different."

The pre-season started as the last season had ended, with Best and Richardson explaining that the standards of the past were now unacceptable. This became clear as training got under way: first, fear of a repeat of last season has been used as a motivation; secondly, Best has been in charge from the very start this time round - last season he took over midway - and slackers have been made to feel unwelcome; thirdly, there was improvement in team spirit for which Best credits Leonard.

Leonard's attribute is his approachability and this is where his captaincy stands apart from Moore's. "Everybody knows and likes Jason," Staples said. "It doesn't matter how many Lions tours he goes on, he'll always be the same. I personally was able to respond to Brian, but for some of the younger players, Brian is not as approachable as Jason. Brian would probably admit that."

Other minor factors have bonded what has appeared a disparate collection of exceptional talents. They now make every effort to travel together to away fixtures, and while, in the past, England Tuesday practice sessions have prevented the internationals from training with Harlequins, creating an elite at the club, Quins' training has now been moved to Monday.

Leonard himself is filled with frustration, witnessing so much and yet not a proper part of it, a status quo that is unlikely to change until Saturday week. "I'm a very bad spectator," he said before recalling narrow victories over West Hartlepool and Bristol. "We wouldn't have won that Bristol game in the past. And when I think of it like that, I'm happy as Larry."