Major teams: Saracens, HarlequinsCountry: EnglandTest span: 1990-2004England caps: 114 (102 starts)Lions caps: 5 (2 starts)Test points: 5 (1T)
Jason Leonard came over as the cheeky chippie who hadn’t a care in the world, but beneath the cheerful surface lay a steely determination to set consistently high standards. The physical and mental preparations he put into match days were so focused that his tackle count was always remarkably high for a prop while he conceded very few penalties.
Born in Barking and educated at the university of hard knocks, Leonard joined his local club where his strength attracted the attention of London’s top-flight outfits. He made his first-class debut for Saracens as a teenager and at 21 – the youngest prop to play for England for 27 years – debuted against Argentina in Buenos Aires where Brian Moore, England’s hooker, praised the loosehead’s solid and reliable qualities.
Leonard transferred to Harlequins on his return, but in 1992 underwent a delicate neck operation to correct a career-threatening injury. Through his dedication to training and fitness, he overcame that setback to stay at the top of his game throughout a decade that saw demands on leading players change beyond recognition as rugby entered its professional era.
Leonard made three Lions tours, crossing the front row to deputise on the starboard side for the 1993 series in New Zealand. Ian McGeechan regards him as the ultimate Lion because of his selfless devotion to the team cause ahead of personal ambition. When Leonard failed to make the 1997 Lions Test side, McGeechan says “it must have been a crushing disappointment, yet he spent time with Paul Wallace, putting everything into making him ready”.
It was typical of a player who was a fixture in the England side for 14 years. He featured in four Grand Slams, was a losing finalist against Australia in the 1991 World Cup and survived to enjoy revenge in 2003 when England won the trophy. He became the first British player to reach 100 caps and retired in 2004 as England’s most-capped player, an honour he still holds.
His record-breaking feats prompted the former England and Lions stalwart Fran Cotton to baptise Leonard “English rugby’s Don Bradman”. There can be no better compliment than that.
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