Leonard the legend brings down curtain on England career

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The Independent Online

There are three absolute certainties about the England rugby team, three fixed points in an ever-changing world. The first is that nobody likes them, the second is that they do not much care for anyone else, and the third is Jason Leonard - dear old Jase, with his beer-barrel chest, tree-trunk arms and his craftily anonymous way of duffing up the opposition. Soon, there will be only two. Leonard has confirmed his decision to retire from the international game later this month, at the conclusion of the Six Nations' Championship. We will not see his like again.

There are three absolute certainties about the England rugby team, three fixed points in an ever-changing world. The first is that nobody likes them, the second is that they do not much care for anyone else, and the third is Jason Leonard - dear old Jase, with his beer-barrel chest, tree-trunk arms and his craftily anonymous way of duffing up the opposition. Soon, there will be only two. Leonard has confirmed his decision to retire from the international game later this month, at the conclusion of the Six Nations' Championship. We will not see his like again.

Capped 114 times by England over 15 seasons and half a dozen times by the Lions on three hugely demanding tours - remarkable figures for a mere threequarter, scarcely credible for one who earned his keep in the brutal environment of the front row - Leonard is the most decorated player in the history of the game. He may yet pick up two further caps, against Wales and France in the next fortnight or so. If he does, good luck to him. No one with a soul would begrudge him anything.

"I know this is the right time," the 35-year-old Harlequin said yesterday, three and a half months after laying his bear-like paws on the ultimate prize - the World Cup. "The thought of being in New Zealand and Australia for nearly a month this summer is too much. Anything longer than two weeks hurts too much in terms of missing my family. You have to be selfish as an international rugby player, and that means missing out on things at home."

A father of three, Leonard missed the birth of his youngest child last autumn because he was slaving his way around Wallaby country in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Cup. He was not best pleased.

There were other bad moments down the years, none of them to do with the comparatively irrelevant business of winning and losing rugby matches. In 1991, barely 15 games into his Test career, he underwent radical surgery on his neck - the grafting of bone from his hip, the fusing together of troublesome discs - just to give himself an even chance of continuing to do what he loved best. Twelve years later, hours before his 100th appearance for England, his young club-mate Nick Duncombe died during a warm-weather training stint in the Canaries. That was the lowest point, a genuine emotional crisis.

But Leonard has had a whale of a time, all things considered. "It's better than real work," he would say, when asked to reflect on his longevity. "I'm still doing this because I like it better than anything else." And generations of England players liked him better than anyone. A superb tourist, a generous guide and counsellor to any number of younger players with impertinent designs on his place in the starting line-up, and a drinker of inter-planetary repute...what else could anyone wish from a prop? "I looked up to him," said Kyran Bracken, the scrum-half who preceded Leonard into international retirement last week. "He made sure the comradeship that was such an important part of the amateur ethos was transferred into the professional era."

Thirtysomething sportsmen generally end up with the bodies they deserve, and while Leonard has his share of aches and pains to set a crown upon his unique achievement - thousands of scrums, tens of thousands of rucks and countless full-frontal collisions would have left their mark on Achilles himself - his longevity was proof of his dedication to the private disciplines of physical preparation. As Jeff Probyn, the former England prop who played alongside Leonard between 1990 and 1993, politely put it some years ago: "Jason's secret? He trains like a bastard."

Born in Barking and a product of both Chadwell Heath comprehensive school and Barking RFC - no Eton and Cambridge for this bloke - Leonard's story was England's story too, for he was one of the players who dragged the red-rose army into the modern, democratic age. Well into the 1980s, there was still an overpowering whiff of privileged Corinthianism about the national team. Two decades on, the fee-paying school brigade are in a minority. Leonard and a handful of players of similar background, including his great friend Jeremy Guscott, proved that the road to Twickenham could be travelled by the club player, as well as the head boy.

A superb technician on the loose-head side of the scrum, he became equally adept in the more demanding tight-head role after the 1993 Lions asked him to switch sides for a must-win meeting with the All Blacks in Wellington. He agreed, and they won. This flexibility guaranteed his place in the affections of three national coaches - Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell and Clive Woodward, the last of whom paid his tribute yesterday. "He has been an outstanding ambassador for the game," Woodward said. "His contribution has been massive."

He might also have pointed out that Leonard stands in the front rank of front-rowers the world over; that his place in the pantheon of post-war international props - among the Cottons, Prices and McLauchlans, the Grays and McDowells and Paparembordes - is secure. If he is allowed to buy his own beer ever again, it will be a scandal.

A thirtysomething sportsman is generally left with the body he deserves, and Jason Leonard looked after his.

JASON LEONARD: FROM DEBUT TO DEPARTURE

1968: Born 14 August, Barking, Essex.

1990: Makes Test debut as England beat Argentina 25-12. Leaves Saracens for Harlequins.

1991: Makes Five Nations debut in 25-6 victory over Wales. Plays in World Cup final against Australia.

1992: Surgery to rectify dangerous neck injury.

1993: Lions Test debut against the All Blacks in Wellington.

1995: Third Grand Slam in five years. World Cup in South Africa.

1996: 50th England cap in 54-21 victory over Italy at Twickenham. Captains England for first time against Argentina. Scores only international try.

1997: Second Lions tour, this time to South Africa.

1999: Third World Cup campaign.

2000: England's most-capped player (86)

2001: Most-capped forward (93) in world rugby

2003: Wins World Cup in November. Receives OBE.

2004: 9 March Confirms retirement from international rugby

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