Leonard excited by changing times
With a glittering career that spanned both the amateur and professional eras, including 22 appearances at four Rugby World Cups, Jason Leonard is one of the tournament’s great journeymen. The England legend also holds the distinction of being his country’s most capped Test player with 114 caps and is undoubtedly one of the most highly respected figures in the game.
Leonard took time out from working with youngsters on the Rugby Football Union’s All Schools programme, a grass-roots initiative aimed at encouraging youngsters in state-run schools in England to take up rugby, to talk to England Rugby 2015 about the evolution of the tournament and his team to watch in two years’ time.
The former England prop has seen the level of interest around rugby’s showpiece boom since he burst onto the scene at RWC 1991.
“The way that Rugby World Cups are delivered has evolved almost beyond recognition in the last 20 or so years," said Leonard.
“Nowadays the whole operation is far slicker and the amount of interest around the tournament has gone through the roof. I remember at RWC 1991 it felt like no-one really knew about it until the semis. Compared to RWCs gone by people are now much more aware of what’s going on in the build up to and during the tournament.”
“These days it’s much easier to find out who will be playing where and when and how to get involved in the tournament. I think that team bases in particular are a really great way of getting youngsters involved. I’ve got kids and they wouldn’t care if it was New Zealand, England, Tonga or whoever – they will want to go down to their nearest RWC 2015 team base to watch the guys train, get some autographs and enjoy that special atmosphere.
“At RWC 1991 we didn’t have that. People didn’t get involved in all aspects of the tournament and there was only really noise around us once we got to the semis and the final – nowadays it feels like people are fully engaged both on and off the field throughout the tournament.”
Building the game
Leonard dedicates much of his time these days to developing rugby in England and believes that RWC 2015 will go a long way to reducing the number of players that drop out of the game in their late teens.
“Naturally, one of the aims for RWC 2015 is to get people interested in rugby, but I think that the tournament will also do a lot to actually keep people interested in it and even encourage people who have left the sport to come back.
“Too many youngsters play the game at school and at college but when they get to university leave rugby to one side. There is a great rugby environment at universities now and when you have a tournament like RWC 2015 at home we’re going to see enthusiasm levels rocket and we’ll see a marked increase in the number of 18 to 21 years olds who choose to continue playing the sport after they leave school.”
Leonard made his international debut at the tender age of just 22 on 28 July 1990 against Argentina in Buenos Aires. The enigmatic prop became England’s youngest ever forward at the time, and over two decades later is now tipping the Pumas to be RWC 2015’s dark horses.
“Argentina would be my surprise choice to make a big impact in two years’ time. They’ve been improving so well in The Rugby Championship and have been getting to grips with the new scrum laws better than most.
“Even though the weather and culture is very different in Argentina and England, many of their players are well versed in English rugby, and almost all of the squad currently play in Europe - so there aren’t going to be any surprises for them at RWC 2015. They are a decent team and I think that they will do better than most people expect.”
Rugby’s showpiece event is the perfect catalyst for Leonard and the RFU to inspire youngsters across England to get involved with rugby.
Rugby World Cups have given Leonard some unforgettable memories over the years, from the agony of losing the 1991 final on home soil to the glory of winning the 2003 final in Sydney, but whatever happens on the field at RWC 2015 Leonard’s primary focus for the next two years and beyond will be to continue to grow the game he loves.