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Rugby Union: Leonard reclaims place in the sun

England's mileage man needed to refuel in the Caribbean to revive his hunger for future battles
JASON LEONARD finished last season as the most capped prop forward in the long and unforgiving history of Test rugby. Depressingly for Harlequins and England, his apparently ceaseless labours at the sharp end of his chosen profession had also rendered him the most profoundly and hopelessly knackered international hero since Hercules returned from his dodgy day trip to Hades. In short, the Lion of Barking could barely lift a finger, let alone an opposing tight head.

It looked for all the world like a case of 63 and out (or 66 and out if you count the Lions caps awarded him amid the infernal fires of New Zealand and South Africa between 1993 and 1997). "They were wheeling me onto the pitch by the end of the campaign," agreed Leonard during a quiet moment at Twickenham this week. "The head and the heart were willing - I've never had any shortage of desire, because I love my rugby - but the body was having none of it. There were certain things I just couldn't do and, when running became one of them, I decided it was time for a bit of a blow."

And off he jolly well blew, all the way to the Caribbean for a 16-day sojourn in St Lucia. Much as he would have loved a few more buffetings from sundry Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks, the pleasures of sun, sea, sand and utter sloth proved less resistible still. "It was my first real holiday in 10 years and it was heaven, I can tell you. Since my first cap in 1990 I'd toured twice with the Lions, played in two World Cups and visited Argentina, Fiji, Australia and South Africa with England. In all that time, I'd missed two Tests. Two! Something was obviously going to give and basically, it was beginning to look like me."

But would a one-off vacation do the trick? Could a scant fortnight of chilled beers and warm beaches possibly reverse the effects of countless set-piece scrummages, muscle-wrenching mauls, big-hit tackles and blood- curdling rucks? Leonard duly started the new Premiership season like a spring lamb but an ill-advised Stead and Simpson act on the prone body of Budge Pountney, the Northampton flanker, earned him a month's suspension. Come the middle of last month, the jury was still out on the future of England's most experienced Test hand.

Since when, Leonard has been next to unstoppable. It was hardly an accident that the recent upturn in Harlequin fortunes should have coincided with his return to the fray and, equally, it was not in the least surprising when Clive Woodward, the national coach, asked his most reliable prop to anchor the scrum against the might, or otherwise, of the Dutch in this weekend's World Cup qualifying match at Huddersfield.

Right now, Woodward needs Leonard like never before. As any Springbok will confirm, team selection starts at loose-head prop and very nearly ends there, too. Faff around with your own scrum ball and your chances of victory are zero; give the opposition a free ride on their put-in and you might as well hand them an express ticket to your try-line. A good coach never takes liberties with his set-piece and, as things stand, Leonard is out there on his own as England's premier numero uno.

Knee problems have prevented Graham Rowntree, restored to his former glory in the unpropitious surrounds of Dunedin and Auckland during the summer, exerting his expected degree of pressure while Kevin Yates of Bath remains weighed down by the psychological baggage of last season's ear-biting affair. As for the rest... well, where are the rest? Look around the Premiership and you see a veritable United Nations of cauliflowered- face heavies. Garry Pagel is a Bok, Nick Popplewell an Irishman, Dave Hilton a Bristol-accented Scot and Roberto Grau an Argentinian pampas- grazer. Woodward's options cannot be described as extensive.

"All things considered, I don't think it's as bad as all that; we're fairly well blessed in the tight forward department," contradicted Leonard, always a generous advocate of those who join him in plying the toughest of rugby trades. "I know results went badly against the England tour team last summer but the forwards gave pretty good accounts of themselves in very difficult circumstances. I was proud of them, actually; they showed a lot of guts, a lot of ticker and their efforts sharpened my own desire to get back.

"Now that I am back, my confidence is way higher than at any point last season. When I run out now, I pretty much know that I will last the afternoon even though the pace of the game is so fantastically quick. A year ago, I honestly didn't know whether I could even hope to get to the final whistle. It's all to do with the clear run I gave myself during the summer. A modern- day player needs to steer clear of a rugby ball for a few weeks and simply concentrate on restoring his strength base and his aerobic fitness. Otherwise, it's curtains."

Of course, the inexperienced Dutch front row would have had enough problems with last year's Leonard, let alone the sprightly update currently relishing the thought of a 64th cap. Will he go easy on the rookies at Huddersfield this Saturday? Not on your life. "This is a cap international," he says, "and that means it's serious.

"I'm as affable as the next bloke but, really, there's no room for sympathy on a rugby field. For a start, if you hold back in the ruck and tackle situations, you greatly increase your own risk of injury. And besides, you only have to look at the way the Italians have developed to realise that you patronise other sides at your peril. Italy didn't have such a great time of it in the first World Cup in 1987 but now, just over a decade on, they're a right old handful, as I'm sure we'll discover at Huddersfield on Sunday week.

"Anyway, the Dutch have reached this stage of the World Cup qualifying tournament on merit and deserve our respect. I wouldn't want to be part of an England team that didn't put it all in. It wouldn't be rugby, would it?"