June 08, 2021 4 min read
The relentless accumulation of England (and British Lions) caps by Jason Leonard OBE during his fourteen year-long international career is unlikely to be matched by many players in international rugby union.
Leonard’s one hundred and fourteen England- and five Lions caps covered four EnglandGrand Slams, in 1991, 1992, 1995 and 2003, a member of the winning England squad in the 2003Rugby World Cup, and the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa in 1997 which resulted in the Test series win.
Leonard was born in Barking on August 14th 1968 and played for his local club before moving to Saracens in 1989, where he spent a season then moved, aged twenty two, to Harlequins, spending the remainder of his club career there.
The prop, whose number of club appearances for Harlequins is unusually close to those he made for England (144 versus 114), won his first international cap, aged twenty one, in July 1990 against Argentina in Buenos Aires, in a purported friendly, but played on a date, the eighth anniversary of the Falklands War, that guaranteed the game would be neither friendly nor calm. Various objects found their way onto the pitch, from oranges to bathroom taps, in a match won by England 25-12 and Leonard was proud to be the youngest prop ever to play for England.
The England pack of which Leonard was a part in his early career included Brian Moore,Wade Dooley,Dean Richards,Mick Skinner,Mike Teague, Jeff Probyn andPeter Winterbottom, brought consecutive Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992 and a World Cup Final, against Australia at Twickenham in 1991, which Australia won 12–6, after England’s Quarter- and Semi-Final wins against France and Scotland respectively.
In 1992 a major setback early in his Test career after ten caps seemed to have brought an end to his time as a player when Leonard ruptured a vertebra in his neck against Wales and remained on the field, the numbness in his arms preventing him from understanding the seriousness of the injury. Emergency surgery, involving bone from his hip being grafted into his neck, followed and against all odds, through a combination of the skills of the surgeons and his own determination to come through his rehabilitation, he won his eleventh cap against Canada at Twickenham in the autumn without missing a game.
At the end of the 1992-93 season Leonard travelled To New Zealand for his first British and Irish Lions tour.
With a new coach - Jack Rowell - and additions to the England squad, Leonard remained a crucial part of the pack and won his thirty eighth cap against Scotland in the 1995 Five Nations. England were Grand-Slam champions again, Leonard’s third.
The optimism harboured within the England set-up for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa proved relatively misfounded as they struggled in their pool matches against Argentina and Italy, both of whom they defeated narrowly, before winning more decisively in the final group match against Western Samoa, for which Leonard was rested, ending his record of forty consecutive England caps. After beating Australia 25-22 in the Quarter Final, England went out in the Semi-Final, 29-45 against the All Blacks.
Leonard scored his only try for England in the autumn 1996 Test against Argentina at Twickenham In November 1996, in which he captained England for the first time and which resulted in a 20-18 victory.
Leonard’s second Lions tour, to South Africa, came at the end of 1996–1997, in a season when he had begun to play at tighthead prop to accommodate Graham Rowntree in the England pack.
Clive Woodward’s career as England manager began in the autumn of 1997, with Tests against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and Leonard playing in both the loosehead- and tighthead prop positions, an adaptability and skill that goes some way to explaining his one hundred plus Test caps. His role under Woodward was cemented.
Disappointment followed in the 1999 World Cup, hosted by Wales, in which England went out to South Africa in the Quarter Final, but 2000-2001 proved a millennial year for Leonard, who won his eighty sixth international cap against Argentina, overtaking Rory Underwood’s England record, and in 2001, against Romania, his ninety third, surpassing Sean Fitzpatrick’s ninety two, until then the most for a forward in international rugby union history.
Whilst the 2001 Lions tour to Australia - Leonard’s third - ended in a 2-1 series defeat, England were demonstrating the improvements they had made under Clive Woodward against the world’s best in the twelve months leading up to the 2003 World Cup in Australia.
Leonard won his hundredth England cap against France in the 2003 Six Nations and another Grand Slam, secured against Ireland at Landsdowne Road. Victory over Wales in Cardiff in the August and his maintenance of form and fitness resulted in Leonard’s selection for Clive Woodward’s World Cup England squad, in which he played all seven of the matches that took England to the title of world champions, including becoming the world’s most-capped player when he surpassed France’s Philippe Sella.
In the World Cup Final against Australia in Sydney Clive Woodward brought Leonard on as a substitute - his second World Cup Final - and believed that this was crucial in England’s 20-17 victory. Jason Leonard MBE became Jason Leonard OBE as a result.
Leonard’s last match for England came in the 2004 Six Nations Championship against Italy and his final match, for theBarbarians against England at Twickenham, included scoring his second international try.
He was inducted into theInternational Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007.
Leonard’s involvement in charities, including the Fair Play programme and his own, The Atlas Foundation, which promotes social change for disadvantaged children through participation in rugby, has been well-documented since he finished his playing career.
He was the second recipient of The Prince Obolensky Award in 2012 for embodiment of the core values of rugby union. Leonard has spoken of these in the context of respect, discipline, sportsmanship, teamwork and attendance at school by teenage truants on the days Leonard and his team have run their project, reaching out and helping young people who are struggling being the key focus.
Leonard’s nickname, The Fun Bus, he has Martin Bayfield to thank for: nothing complicated, simply the fact that Bayfield saw him running across the pitch in his red England training top and Leonard reminded him of a London double-decker bus!
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