Rugby Union: Pride in his indestructibility

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Hollywood would love the story but there would be trouble finding even a stunt man to play the lead. They have never made anything like Jason Leonard. They might get the accent. Even Californians do cockney. They would love the violence. In rugby 'the front row' means what it says. They would adore the heroism. On Tuesday Leonard was again selected for the England squad despite spending all summer having his neck screwed back together. The snag would be the shape.

It's well disguised in civvies. We waited for him in The White Lion on Thursday morning. There was muzak, a fruit machine, an old man smoking in a corner and passing trade from Putney. A big guy came in with a bomber jacket, bovver boots and a bull terrier on a chain. After checking out the bar he left us and a shorter, gentle faced lad wandered in quietly. It was Jason Leonard.

He had on the jeans and a T-shirt you would expect from a jobbing carpenter who had been working all morning. At just 5ft 10in he hardly towers over anyone. With an empty pub you can at first fail to notice the parking space he needs. Seventeen-and-a-half stone of massive, solid but very mobile muscle. If he ran out into the street, the double deckers would be in danger.

On the pitch it's opponents who get hit, and this time it's on purpose. In the front row there can never be any escape. Of all the positons in the game, its the hardest for the outsider to imagine, let alone aspire to. Three men linked up together with five giants locked on behind, and the need for this guiding trio to plunge their necks and shoulders into the glaring, three- headed, eight-bodied monster pawing in front of them. Leonard has loved it since he was a kid. In rugby terms, an international prop forward at 24, a kid he remains.

He is also a breath of fresh air. Into the sometimes constipated world of old school ties and committee room blazers came Jack The Lad from Barking. In a moment we will return to the deceptively innnocent looking scar on the left side of the throat but atop those enormous shoulders there is not a chip in sight.

Unhappily the Leonard achievements will have difficulty in blowing up a gale of East End rugby fever as the game is no longer played in Warren Comprehensive, and only two schools in the borough now practice the game William Webb Ellis started all those years ago at a rather different seat of learning in Warwickshire. Maybe they will have a rethink if Leonard gets to the unthinkable 100 England caps which some pundits claim possible. But it's hard to see what more the boy who left school at 15 could so far have done for the cause.

First called to the colours on the 1990 summer tour of Argentina he has won 18 more caps and long since dispelled any doubts that his comparative youth (hooker Brian Moore is 30, tight-head prop Jeff Probyn 36) made him a vulnerable boy in the man's world of front row play.

'After he had done so well in Argentina,' said Peter Winterbottom, England's most capped forward and now Leonard's captain at Harlequins, 'the big guys were quite happy with him. If men like Wade Dooley and Brian Moore are pleased then you know there is no problem.'

Winterbottom talks with the authority of someone who has never shirked going in where boots and fists are flying. 'Even at the start I never felt that Jason was likely to crack under pressure. He does not go around giving anybody cheap shots. But he holds his ground and won't let people get one up on him.'

These measured euphemisms conjure up images of Leonard and Winterbottom in the inferno. The older man, the open side flanker, marauding off the back row of the scrum while the young rhino, locked in ahead of him, continues to root on up the middle.

Most particularly, perhaps, the unforgettable blood and thunder of that World Cup quarter- final showdown with France at Parc des Princes last November. Those pictures in the tunnel - Winterbottom, that almost pretty-boy blond hair above the implacable hatchet man's face; Leonard, pink plaster wrapped around the ears, chin tilted defiantly upwards as the great chest inhaled deep for what lay ahead.

Then the combat itself. Mayhem after Blanco felled Heslop. Leonard linked down opposite the brutal bulk and terrifying countenance of Pascal Ondarts, France's hardest of the hard men. For 80 minutes the battle raged. At the end a large filling had appeared above Monsieur Ondarts' right eye. Leonard's 'I don't know nuffink about that' response on Thursday would have been a shade more convincing without a slow smile flickering behind those steady brown eyes.

You have got to have a sense of humour if you are a carpenter. Especially if you trade in recession-ravaged south London and you have spent the past seven months attempting to realign your head and neck above the spine. If Leonard was an ordinary mortal he would be thinking twice about using a chisel, let alone packing down against eight mean beasts from Canada on Saturday in England's first international of the season.

He looks ordinary enough picking his chicken salad (stick to the white meats) and sipping his orange juice (on the wagon except for few beers on Saturday night). Sure the thick wedge of the forearm connects to the great glove of a hand without bothering with anything fancy like a wrist, but the talk is cautious and witty and it soon becomes clear that it's a miracle he is playing at all.

At the end of the Scotland match in February he had some pins and needles in his left side. A trapped nerve was diagosed but despite extensive physiotherapy and traction the condition deteriorated during the Five Nations and by the closing game against Wales, Leonard admitted privately to 'being in a lot of grief'.

On the Monday after sealing that second Grand Slam triumph a scan showed the C6 and C7 verterbrae at the base of the neck so distorted that within the week he had undergone an operation using a piece of bone from his pelvis to fuse the offending verterbrae together.

Think of it. Above all think of it for a prop forward, the very essence of whose game is the moment when his neck and shoulders take 1,600 kilos of impact as the two scrums collide.

On the left side of the throat Leonard fingers a small sickle-like scar with the proprietorial pride of the athlete who has got his machinery back into shape. 'They went in here,' he said as if discussing a door fitting, 'to get at the verterbrae direct and then afterwards they didn't stitch it, just had clips on the incision, so washing was a bit difficult.'

From all outside accounts that wasn't the only thing. For six weeks he had to wear a surgical collar. It was six more before he could approach any sort of training. Mid-August before the mildest form of contact was in order. Last Saturday before the restructured Leonard neck played through a match once again.

Those who insist on rugby players remaining outwardly some form of financial virgins might like to know that Leonard's one accident payment so far accounts for less than a sixth of what he would have earned if fit, and that although he has an appeal to the game's 'Hardship Fund', there is resignation in the voice as he says, 'I have probably had my full whack.'

But this is not a whinger. As he talks of his training, of the challenge of international rugby, of the direct nature of his own position, there is an old-fashioned word that emanates from the present-day trappings of a pub corner in Putney. It's called pride.

Pride in the training. Three times a day, starting with a run to a gym up the Mile End Road at 6.30am. 'It will be Christmas before I have all the muscle back,' he says. Apparently he lost two-and-a-half inches of bicep on his right hand side, but opponents hoping for some emaciated version of that 48-inch barrel of a chest will be disappointed. Pride in his position. 'I enjoy the confrontation,' he says with almost technical dispassion, 'the one on one. All week before an international you are tuning in to your game. By Friday night you have been through everything. You know what has to be done. It should all work like clockwork.' Pride, above everything in pulling on that white shirt for England. 'I don't laugh and joke much on Saturday, but I don't believe in bouncing off walls either. Concentration is everything.'

For all the laconic Londoner's humour there's no disguising the uplift now. 'The most interesting thing,' he says carefully, those huge forearms folded in front of him on the table, 'is running out of the tunnel at Twickenham. The noise of 65,000 people hits you. That and the national anthems really gets your back up. It's very addictive and worth everything. It makes you feel 10 feet tall.'

If you ring Leonard's Putney phone number you get a complicated message which ends with the triumphant cockney sign off. 'If you can't get me on them other numbers I wouldn't worry. I am most probably trying to avoid yer.' Canada's front row will just be the next to wish the joke were true.

(Photograph omitted)

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