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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 12:21 GMT
Leonard's long march
Jason Leonard carries the World Cup trophy outside 10 Downing Street

Jason Leonard is the world's most-capped rugby player and one of the game's true legends.

The 35-year-old from Barking, who was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours, became the most-capped player in history when he replaced a bloodied Phil Vickery against France during the World Cup semi-final in Australia last November.

In the process he broke the previous mark of 111 set by retired French centre Philippe Sella.

His achievement is all the more remarkable considering he earns his living as a prop, the most physically demanding position in the sport.

But over his 14-year England career Leonard has revelled in the physical combat of the forward exchanges.

He would not have appeared in four World Cups, been on a hat-trick of Lions tours and set all those records by any other means.

The 17-stone front-rower's technical excellence in the tight and his contribution to the team's tackle count in the loose have made him first choice under successive England coaches.

JASON LEONARD FACTFILE
14/8/68: Born in Barking
July 1990: Test debut
Nov 1991: Losing World Cup finalist
April 1992: Undergoes operation to repair ruptured vertebrae in his neck
July 1993: Lions debut v NZ
Nov 1996: Wins 50th Test cap
Dec 1996: Captains England for first time and scores only international try
May 1997: Second Lions tour
Oct 1999: Third World Cup
May 2001: Third Lions tour
Nov 2001: Becomes most capped forward with 93
Feb 2003: Wins 100th Test cap
Nov 2003: Wins record 112th Test cap
Feb 2004: Extends record to 114 caps

But it is the mental strength that saw him bounce back from a career-threatening neck injury in 1992, as well as the pride he takes in representing his country, that have arguably done most to sustain him through his career.

Enjoyment, too, has played a big factor, and Leonard is one of the few current internationals whose career has spanned both the amateur and professional eras.

So much so, that in his autobiography he names his "All-time drinking XV" from team-mates past and present.

The bell calling time on Leonard's career first started to sound urgent after he increased his record to 114 caps when he came on against Italy in the first game of the 2004 RBS Six Nations.

He was on the bench for the next game against Scotland, although was not called on to the pitch.

When he was omitted from from the 22 to face Ireland last week, it was the first time he had not made a squad, barring injury, in his entire Five/Six Nations career.

Leonard was an early initiate into the underworld of the scrum, earning his first cauliflower ear as a 15-year-old playing for Barking Under-19s.

He made his England debut in Argentina in 1990 at just 21 while working as a joiner in his day job.

And he went on to appear in a remarkable 40 consecutive Tests between 1990 and 1995.

It was an even more extraordinary achievement because that sequence included an operation, in 1992, to repair ruptured vertebrae in his neck using bone taken from his pelvis.

Leonard was off work for seven months - for which he was compensated a princely 800 by the then staunchly amateur RFU, English rugby's governing body.

But the absence of a summer tour that year meant he was able to pick up his jersey again for England's next international.

Neither his team-mates nor the record books noticed he had been away as Leonard carried on propping, helping his country to another Grand Slam in 1995.

And he became the game's most-capped forward - with 93 - in the 134-0 romp against hapless Romania in November 2001, overtaking All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick.

When Leonard broke the all-time appearance record in Australia, he remained as modest as ever, simply describing it as a "huge honour".

England boss Sir Clive Woodward said Leonard's international career was "definitely not over" when ignoring him for the Ireland match - and he has reiterated that by saying he is in the frame for the final two Six Nations matches.

Woodward could choose a horses-for-courses approach to win the remaining games against Wales and France, giving Leonard a chance of another cap or two.

Or he may opt for a complete rebuilding process looking very much to the future.

Whichever option he takes, Leonard's awesome spell stoking the England engine is nearing the end and fans will be sorry to see him go.




RBS SIX NATIONS 2004


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