Leonard the world leader by example

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Contrary to popular belief, Jason Leonard did not play in a front row with Cain and Abel, and never scrummaged against Noah. He did, however, encounter an Old Testament figure in his first international, 13 years and several rugby generations ago.

This fierce South American went by the name of Luis Molina, a ruthless Argentinian enforcer from the remote outpost of Tucuman, and by the end of the match, Leonard knew he had been in a game. A century of England appearances down the road, life does not get any easier.

Leonard has generous things to say about every opponent he ever faced; there is honour among the propping fraternity, and the venerable Harlequin would never dream of betraying it by talking out of turn.

He could be heard trotting out the usual platitudes on Wednesday, after being named in England's starting line-up for today's quarter-final against Wales - a highly significant occasion in itself, but given added emotional lustre by the fact that the boy from the East End will equal the world record of 111 caps earned by Philippe Sella, the great French centre. "They're always tough boys, the Welsh," he said. "An old 'un like me can't afford to go soft, 'cos they'll 'ave me."

So far, so predictable; as Reggie Perrin's boss CJ might have said, Leonard didn't get where he is today by shouting the odds and making himself a hostage to fortune. Illuminating thoughts on the life and times of the most decorated forward in rugby history - a player so resilient that he underwent major neck surgery and returned in time for the next match, who went 100 Tests before missing one through injury - tend to be provided by those who work alongside him.

Step forward Andy Robinson, who has personal experience of the Leonard effect on the business end of the union code. "It was during that tour of Argentina in 1990, when Jason was the new boy," recalled the former flanker, who now coaches Leonard and the rest of the England pack. "For some reason, I found myself facing him in the front row during training and at the first hit, we managed to pop John Olver, one of the hookers on the trip, out of the scrum. Jason was pretty offended by that, so when we scrummed again, he gave me hell. The scrum broke up, but I stayed bent in half; I was walking sideways like a crab, unable to straighten my back. God, he was strong."

Robinson mixed it with Leonard, albeit from a safer distance, for several more years, and has been overseeing his work at international level since the squared series in South Africa in 2000. He knows pretty much all there is to know about the man's mastery of his unforgiving trade, and remarkably, he believes this most familiar and chronicled of rugby yeomen is misunderstood.

"People have the wrong impression of Jason," he said. "They constantly refer to him as some sort of fail-safe player, someone we fall back on when things aren't going to plan. It's nonsense. What he does, continually, is raise the performance bar for the props in this squad. And when they meet the challenge and maybe get picked ahead of him, he puts in the work and raises the bar again.

"What are his merits? Where would you like me to start? He can scrummage, obviously, but there's so much more to his game. He has excellent footballing skills, he's a top defender, he's hard, he's a winner. We don't select on sentiment in this team. We select people because they deserve to be selected."

Pressed for a theory that might begin to explain Leonard's extraordinary longevity, Robinson suspects that it can be traced, at least in part, to his grounding in the amateur era, when gym culture was for Schwarzeneggers rather than scrummagers.

There is nothing artificial about Leonard's strength, nothing manufactured. He is strong because, during his punishing and frequently painful rugby upbringing, it would have been fatal to be otherwise. There is no guarantee we will see his like again.

At 35, Leonard is firmly in "one game at a time" mode - a cliché, but an entirely legitimate cliché in his particular case. "I am as surprised as anyone that I'm still around," he admitted last week. "I grew up in this game when people were happy with 15 caps, when a 30-cap career was exceptional, so I'm grateful to have lasted this long. It won't surprise you to learn that I take nothing for granted. When you lose your enthusiasm for training early in the morning, when you might be in bed; when you really can't face leaving your family for weeks on end... that's when you know it's beginning to slip away. I haven't experienced those feelings yet, but they'll come one day.

"Right now, I still love this job. But the years do kick in every now and again. The last time England met Wales in a World Cup quarter-final was back in 1987, and I watched the game on the telly. Earlier this week, I sat down and tried to remember who was in the England pack that day, and I realised I'd played with more or less all of them. That was pretty scary, I can tell you."

Precious few other things have scared Leonard over the last decade and a half, and it is difficult to imagine Wales, for all their romantic notions of another World Cup turn-up, frightening him today.

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