Leonard poised to join élite 100 club

Chris Hewett
Thursday 26 December 2002 01:00
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Jason Leonard, the grand old man of English rugby and the senior citizen of the world's front-row fraternity, is virtually certain to win his 100th red rose cap when the French visit Twickenham in the opening fixture of the Six Nations Championship on 15 February. The 34-year-old Harlequin's only genuine challenger, Trevor Woodman of Gloucester, is not expected to recover from a neck condition for another five weeks at least.

By some distance the most resilient prop of his generation – he has suffered only one serious injury, and that as long ago as 1991 – Leonard is a single international appearance away from joining two celebrated threequarters, Philippe Sella of France and David Campese of Australia, in the union game's most exclusive group. Sella won 111 caps for his country between 1982 and 1995, Campese 101 caps between '82 and '96. Only one other forward, the great All Black hooker Sean Fitzpatrick, passed the 90-cap mark during his Test career.

Woodman, an exceptional talent, was selected ahead of Leonard on the loose head of the English scrum for last month's meeting with New Zealand at Twickenham, and performed magnificently. But he damaged his neck during training the following week, and has not played since. This week, the Gloucester director of rugby Nigel Melville confirmed Woodman would not return until early February at the earliest, and was not a live option for the eagerly awaited meeting with France, who won the Grand Slam last season after beating England in Paris.

As Quins are already out of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, Leonard can look forward to a fortnight's rest next month. All he needs to do is survive Premiership outings against Bath, Bristol, Newcastle and Sale, plus a Powergen Cup quarter-final with Leicester. Given his exemplary fitness record, the odds on him leading England into the Twickenham arena in a little over seven week's time are very short indeed.

Northampton, who face Gloucester in a highly significant Premiership thrash at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday, will not be blessed with the presence of their All Black flanker, Andrew Blowers, who was injured during ther Midlanders' cup squeeze at Orrell last weekend. Rob Hunter will join Budge Pountney, the captain, and Mark Soden in the back row, with Jon Phillips making a 300th senior appearance for the Saints at lock. On the wings, the New Zealander Bruce Reihana will partner Ben Cohen, who has just agreed a new two-year deal and will stay at the club until 2005. There is no Robbie Morris, though. The England squad prop has been overhauled by Chris Budgen; indeed, he has not been included in a match-day squad of 26.

Wasps, who face the four-time champions Leicester at Adams Park tomorrow, expect to include Joe Worsley, the England loose forward, in their breakaway trio. Worsley has missed two months of rugby, including the whole of the autumn international series, because of hamstring trouble, but has trained successfully this week. Two of the Londoners' most effective recent performers will be missing, however. Shane Roiser, the wing, has damaged tendons in his thumb, while the 22-year-old centre Ayoola Erinle will not be risked until next month following his trials and tribulations in the cup defeat by Bath five days ago.

Erinle was carried off in injury time after a collision with Matt Perry and immediately hospitalised. Fortunately, there was no serious damage.

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