Rugby World Cup: From Warren School to World Cup winner
- Credit: Archant
Barking old boy Jason Leonard discusses his life in rugby
It certainly isn’t easy to have a chat with rugby legend Jason Leonard. The World Cup winner is back on familiar ground at East London Rugby Club in West Ham and everyone wants a piece of him.
There is plenty to go round. The barrel-chested prop forward with the beaming smile is a hero to all these people at a special luncheon for the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour.
Everyone scrambles to have their picture taken with the 47-year-old and the Webb Ellis Cup. Everyone wants to have a little chat, tell him what they remember of that glorious World Cup win back in 2003 which he played in.
The Cup sits behind him on a slightly wobbly plinth, but even if it fell to the ground nobody but World Cup winners are allowed to handle it – it would be down to Jason to pick it up.
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Leonard is now President of the Rugby Football Union, his feet have hardly touched the ground since he was appointed to the role in June and the amount of work and travelling he has to do has surprised him.
But he is back in his old stamping ground and when he finally sits down with a beer to have a chat, he is happy to talk about how it all started for him.
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“I went to a big comprehensive school in Chadwell Heath,” he began. “Tony Cottee went there too before going on to play for West Ham. It was a soccer school really, we didn’t play a lot of cricket, we didn’t play a lot of anything else really.”
Not a promising beginning until Leonard discovered rugby.
“There was no rugby at our school at all until a Welsh teacher came in to the school – I must have been 10 or 11. He looked at the curriculum and said ‘I see you don’t play any rugby – you will now!’”
He continued: “Rugby was just a natural game for me. Physically I have always been bigger than my peers, even as a child. In football I was always told ‘gentle Jason, gentle Jason, you might hurt him’ when I started playing rugby people were shouting, ‘put him down! put him down!
“That gave me the realisation that this was the game for me.”
So where next for Leonard? It proved to be a toss-up between two clubs.
“There were lots of people asking me where I was going to go and it was a toss up between Ilford Wanderers and Barking.
“They were about the same distance from where I was living in Chadwell Heath, but I chose Barking first because that was where my nans and aunties lived.
“The idea was to turn out at Barking to see what that was like and then go to Ilford the next week, but after turning up at Barking at 14 and playing for their under-15s, I really loved it and the guys were great.”
Wanderers loss was certainly Barking’s gain and the young Leonard played for them for a couple of years before moving up to the under-19s as well as playing for Essex, Eastern Counties and London which earned him an England trial and a place in their under-19 team where he took on Italy, France and Wales.
“I was always a prop forward,” he smiled. “I thought I was going to get taller, but I just got wider! So there was no place in the second row for me.”
He tells the story of making his Barking debut, when the tradition was for new first-teamers to be stripped on the coach on the way home and made to run the last mile back to the ground.
Leonard had to do his run in two inches of snow, without shoes, and on the way home he was stopped by the police, who knew only too well what was happening and asked with a smirk if he had just made his Barking debut!
“The decision was whether to go up to that next level,” he adds. “Clubs like Harlequins and Wasps wanted me in their under-19 team, so I spoke to a number of people at Barking who I respected and they said that I should be having a full season of first-team rugby with them and that I would learn more from some gnarled old prop than I would at under-19 level.
“They were right. I stayed for a year and then went to Saracens. I played once in the second team and then in the second game of the season, the first team prop was getting married. Who gets married in the rugby season?!
“I took his place and never looked back.”
The rest of Leonard’s career is well documented. He moved from Saracens to Harlequins and began his full England career which culminated in that World Cup win in 2003.
“I had an opportunity at Harlequins because their loose-head prop was leaving to go down to Wales.” explained Leonard.
“If you look at the rest of that team, Brian Moore had come down from Nottingham, they had Andy Mullins at second row, Paul Ackford of England and the Lions, Troy Coker, the Aussie who played against me in the World Cup final, Micky Skinner, Peter Winterbottom and another England man called David Cooke – it was a real international pack.
“I learned more in one season there, than I would probably have learned in three at Saracens. It was a sacrifice because I loved Saracens, but my future was with Harlequins and the proof is in the pudding.”
It certainly is. From humble beginnings at Barking to World Cup winner and now the RFU president. It is a meteoric rise.
As we chat, people come over to slap him on the back and thank him for his contribution to their lives. Then he is off. More photos, more chats, more slaps on the back and though it is hard work, by the look on his face, the man they nicknamed ‘The Fun Bus’ is loving every minute.