Proud to be a champion of humility
Jason Leonard tells David Kelly why he's cut from same cloth as Ireland's John Hayes
Published 27/02/2010 | 05:00
When John Hayes gleefully fled from the spotlight last Tuesday, when the media glare acclaiming his imminent 100th cap had subsided, he bumped into Keith Wood on the stairs. "Get me Jason Leonard's number, will ya?"
The Bull had many people to thank, but one man in particular remains lodged in his memory. Nine years ago, Leonard conjured up one of those gestures which at once echoed the amateur days from which both men derived yet also betrayed their ultimate professionalism. Hayes takes up the story.
"I'll never forget the moment," says the Bruff man. "It was after the foot-and-mouth international, just after we'd beaten England, and in walks Jason Leonard to our dressing-room with a six-pack of beer under his arm and he's looking for me.
"He'd just equalled Sean Fitzpatrick's appearance record for a forward and there we were in the corner sipping on the cans. Then he gives me his jersey, his name and the date of the match embroidered on it. An amazing moment."
As a paid-up member of the gnarled, cauliflower-eared front-row union, the mutual respect between the pair is clearly evident.
"It's an extraordinary tribute to the man," says Leonard. "You think of the thousands of scrums, the line-out lifting, the incredible physicality of the man. He's probably underrated outside of his country because he never shouts and screams about what he does or what he's going to do. He just does it.
"I don't think there's any question that if he looks after himself, he can go to the next World Cup. But it's up to him. He's looked after well by Ireland and Munster so there's every chance he can do that. People looked upon me, I suppose, in a similar way leading into the World Cup in 2003 when people thought, 'Well, this guy's getting on a bit, isn't he?' But it's all about how you feel as a player.
"Props are never scoring tries in the corner or making blistering runs so there's always a sense that we're just hanging around.
"But make no mistake, when John Hayes has to leave the Irish team, they will miss him terribly." Just as England still miss the presence of a Jason Leonard, you ponder.
If Hayes' longevity is the stuff of legend, Leonard's durability is even more storied.
He remains the world's most capped forward: 114 for England, with whom he won four Grand Slams and a World Cup, five for the Lions, for whom he won a series in South Africa in 1997.
A stereotypical Eastender from Barking, his dad was a carpenter. At Warren Comprehensive, nearby West Ham United seemed as if they would maintain a firmer hold on the young Leonard than the then-foreign game of egg-chasing.
But one Sunday morning, he walked into Barking RFC. Saracens soon spotted him and the rest became history. He debuted in Argentina in 1990 and survived the still nascent post-Falklands bile -- amongst other things, a tap was flung on to the field.
It seemed if he could survive that, he could survive anything. That assertion would soon be put to the severest test. Playing against Wales in 1992, Leonard felt a numbing sensation in his arm. Unbeknownst to him, he had snapped a vertebrae in his neck. He played on. A scan revealed a disc pressing against his neck. He would later require emergency surgery to graft some hip bone on to his neck. "They could have cut my arm off had they wished," he recalls.
The operation to insert the bone required incisions in his neck, either side of his throat. Playing again seemed a pipe dream. So did accessing insurance from the RFU. They offered a paltry £800.
Leonard, now a carpenter like his dad, was down about 20 times as much in lost earnings. He couldn't even lift a hammer. "If I hadn't needed the money so much I would've torn it up and thrown it in their faces," he wrote in his autobiography.
Yet a year later, he would tour New Zealand with the Lions.
"It makes you realise that you're only one injury away from the end of your career, or perhaps even being in a wheelchair," says Leonard who, like Keith Wood, remains deeply involved with foundations to help injured players, amongst them the late Stuart Mangan, in whose honour he appeared at the Stoop last evening.
"I've met surgeons recently and they've told me how miraculous the operation was on my neck, so it does make you appreciate what you have a little bit more."
Leonard was also a man who liked his pints. Indeed, he apologises for spilling beer over this writer before an England international several years ago. "Unlike me to be so careless with my own drink," he laughs.
But he aged well. "I looked after myself as I got older and the game got even more professional. You had to." The undoubted highlight was his renaissance at the 2003 World Cup; his extra-time appearance in the final arguably galvanised the scrum and laid the platform for ultimate glory.
His old captain is struggling these days though. "England are an unknown quantity. After the hefty win against Wales, we all thought the process was moving forward, but then the game against Italy brought the whole thing to a shuddering halt again and it's difficult to know where they stand.
"Ireland need a performance as well. They didn't show up in Paris and had one of those days when their luck wasn't with them at any stage. So you have two teams looking for a big display and whoever brings that out will win. If I was having a few quid, I'd give the nod to Ireland."
And Leonard, who lives a drop-kick away from Twickenham, may just have a moment to call in to see 'Rala', Ireland's popular kitman Patrick O'Reilly, like he did all those years ago.
There won't be a Claw puffing on a coffin nail but the Bull will be there in the corner. Rala will hand the Englishman a cup of tea. "There you go, two sugars." And then they'll chat just like old times.
"If you can't lose graciously and if you can't be humble when you win, you shouldn't be playing the game."