Prop legend Jason Leonard discusses why he's upbeat about England's prospects in the Six Nations and World Cup, and explains his new initiative to help underprivileged kids
Jason Leonard: “After the autumn, I’m far more confident about England’s chances”
His current knee injury permitting, Dylan Hartley could become only the second Englishman to win 100 Test caps during the course of this year’s Six Nations. For now, Jason Leonard remains England’s sole centurion and there could be no finer man to bear that distinction.
The legendary prop, named by Sir Ian McGeechan as his “ultimate Lion” because of his selfless devotion to the cause, is a tireless ambassador for charity and recently launched a new initiative as part of his existing philanthropic venture, the Atlas Foundation.
He also sits on the boards of the Six Nations and British & Irish Lions, and chairs the Six Nations age-grade rugby.
Leonard, 50, played in four World Cups during his 114-cap career, so as Japan 2019 heaves into view, we got his thoughts on England and his latest project ahead of the Six Nations…
RW: When you were a player, did the Five/Six Nations Championship that preceded each World Cup have a different feel to it?
JL: “The difference is you’re aware that momentum is key going into a Rugby World Cup. And when I say momentum, that’s not just winning games, it’s about developing your game.
“That England squad in 2003 won a Grand Slam just prior to the summer tour and the World Cup, which gave us that momentum going forward. I think you’re aware of that.
“But I remember talking to John Eales, the Australia captain, about World Cups, about how many games you have to win and the preparation. At the time, New Zealand couldn’t win a World Cup when they were winning every game in-between.
“And John Eales said something that has always stuck with me: ‘You don’t have to be the best team in the world for four years to win a World Cup, you just have to be the best team in the world for four weeks.’ And he’s got a point. You just need to hit a rich vein of form.
“So sometimes your games prior to a World Cup are not as important as you think. When someone like John Eales says something like that, you can see the common sense in it.”
RW: How are England placed right now?
JL: “Having watched the autumn games, I’m far happier now. With all the injuries that happened, we thought it wasn’t the best preparation but we’ve uncovered a couple of players that were on the periphery of England selection. And now you look at them and think, ‘I’ll tell you what, he’s really put his hand up there’.
“Look at the Newcastle back-rower, Mark Wilson. He was flagged up a couple of years ago, on the Argentina tour, then you never saw much of him really. But he was pivotal to everything England did in the autumn. He got Man of the Match against South Africa, he’s been on fire.
“You’ve also got key players coming back. Billy, Mako (the Vunipola brothers), those guys are in the set-up. And again, you’ve always got to factor in injuries; someone is always going to be injured at some point and it’s about how you deal with that.
“After seeing England’s showings in the autumn, I’m far more confident going forward about their chances in this tournament and hopefully progressing in the World Cup later this year.”
RW: You’ve mentioned Mark Wilson. Anyone else you think has grasped an opportunity they might not have expected to get?
JL: “The Exeter props (Ben Moon, Alex Hepburn, Harry Williams), they all had a great nod. The front row looks a competitive place, selection wise.
“Kyle Sinckler, even though we’ve known about him for a couple of years, had an outstanding autumn and we want to see him progress and improve in this Six Nations. He could be the cornerstone of the England pack for years to come.
“Pretty much across the board, we looked there or thereabouts and it’s just about carrying on in that vein.
“It’s not going to be easy; the betting money will be on Ireland, and I’m pretty sure they will be trying to get rid of the favourites’ tag. But when you’ve just beaten New Zealand, you can’t run away from it. And gone are the days where if Ireland lose one player, their game falls to pieces. They’ve got strength in depth now.
“The same could be said of Wales and England. So you’ve got those three sides that will fancy their chances to be in the mix at the end of the Six Nations.
“Scotland, under Gregor Townsend, have also developed; they’re playing a type of rugby that is more true, more akin to the Scottish style, and they’re going to be a threat to any side.
“If teams don’t take them seriously then Scotland can beat any of those top three sides on their day. I think it’s going to be a great Six Nations.”
RW: You recently launched the Front Row Club. What is that?
JL: “A few years ago I started a charity called the Atlas Foundation, which helps some of the poorest kids in some of the poorest areas of the world. We have a number of events and treks and fund-raisers; golf, cycle rides, all sorts of things.
“You’re trying to think of something that some of the other charities don’t do, and it was kicked around to create a (virtual) club that will involve rugby and be a forum for people to have a voice, and can be taken as seriously as they want, or not seriously. It could be a bit of mickey-taking, a bit of banter. But to have access to that.
“I said that in an ideal world I’d rather spend more time drinking at the bar with front-rowers. Obviously I was joking but it was borne out of that. If we create this members club, you start with front-rowers but open it up to other people.
“And again, to be part of that club, you can post your thoughts, your messages, or have a bit of banter with other people on there, maybe a serious discussion about the game and where it’s going. You can put yourself forward for prizes, go into draws and stuff like that. It’s just a light-hearted touch in that aspect for not much money (£10) but the money that gets raised goes to the Atlas Foundation to help these kids.”
RW: We see you had a challenge to down iced tea…
JL: “Yes, and it’s not as easy as you think. Iced tea is terrible! The more ice you’ve got in it, the more of a challenge it is.
“I’ve got to say I’ve been looking at a couple of the videos and I can’t see many ice cubes! I think I might have to start inspecting a few of the iced teas myself. Mine was at least half full of ice and at one point I nearly choked on a bit of ice as well!
“You nominate five people and hopefully they’ll sign up as well and do their challenge and then nominate five more people. It’s just a bit of fun and interaction to get people involved and hopefully create some traction for the Front Row Club.”
[Watch Simon Shaw taking on the Iced Tea Challenge below.]
RW: We see the Atlas Foundation has got a trek in India and Nepal coming up (29 March to 3 April). Will you be going on that?
JL: “Yes, we’ve got projects in India and are evaluating a couple more. The trekking hike is through the foothills of the Himalayas, so that’s not going to be easy. A number of people have signed up already.
“We’ve done an annual trek for the last few years and whilst they’ve been challenging they’ve not been impossible, which again is about having a bit of fun with them as well.
“The most important thing is that the money from these treks goes towards helping the kids on the projects we’ve got around the world, that we’ve currently got running or are in the process of looking to fund.
“At the moment we’ve got about 20 projects in about 15 countries; we’re helping more than 20,000 children worldwide. We’ve got projects all over Africa, in Argentina, the States, the Atlas Israel project is about to start.
“We’re also looking at projects for the islanders that are based in Australia. We’ve got other projects that we’re in the process of evaluating and seeing whether we can help them.
“It’s great because it’s only a small charity that I founded three and a bit years ago. It’s grown so quickly and the beauty of it is that we’re helping north of 20,000 kids a year now and we want to grow that, hopefully with the Front Row Club at the forefront of that as a fund-raiser. Hopefully pretty soon we’ll be looking at getting close to a million kids.”
RW: Fantastic work. Finally, will you be in Japan for the whole of the World Cup?
JL: “That’s a 64,000-dollar question at this moment! I’d do it one of two ways: go to the first part of the World Cup and then come back for the knockout stages. Or go out for the last pool match and stay out for the rest of the tournament.
“I do think England will be there or thereabouts, and that it will be a great World Cup as well. It will be unique and an eye-opener for people who have never been to Japan before.
“It’s a fantastic place, so different. Japan will want it to be a huge success because they’ve got the Olympics just around the corner after it. So the world is coming to Japan, whether it be in rugby or the Olympics. They will make it a fantastic showpiece.”
For more information on the Front Row Club, click here.