Raising a glass to England great and RWC winner Jason Leonard

Jason Leonard, pictured right alongside Mike Catt, holds aloft the Webb Ellis Cup during an open-top bus parade celebrating England's Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003. PA Images via Getty Images

Let's raise a glass -- since there's little doubt that's what he will be doing -- to the most-capped Englishman of all, Jason Leonard, 50 on Tuesday. That sentiment will be echoed around the rugby world, since few players of any nation have inspired more unalloyed affection than the prop forward from Barking.

There was, and is, more to him than likeability and formidable scrummaging ability. He'd probably reject any suggestion that his career had much significance beyond itself, but he reflected a number of significant changes during his time as a player.

The historian Tony Collins has pointed out that no England teams have ever been more socially representative than those in the period leading up to the World Cup victory of 2003. It takes more than one player to do that, and Jason Robinson, a black former rugby league player from Leeds, was probably the most spectacular break with previous history. But the carpenter from East London who went to a football-playing comprehensive was still a pretty potent symbol.

He also bridged, as few others did, the transition from pre-professionalism before 1995, when he won 43 caps and two for the Lions, and the real thing afterwards, accounting for a further 71 for England and three for the Lions.

It completed a remarkable rise. He was, on his own cheerful admission, a pretty rumbustious kid. A remarkable lack of road sense led to his being knocked down six times by cars while his school, Warren Comprehensive, was better known for producing footballers like Tony Cottee, but when it introduced rugby he found the game's simple physicality a dream.

Joining Barking at 14, he was in their first Essex-Cup winning under-19 team at 15 and was captain the following year when he also left school to train with his father as a carpenter and made his first-team debut. Club officials -- uneasily aware that he was below the minimum age for adult rugby -- were immediately reassured as his opposite number from Braintree RFC was lifted out of the first scrum.

Inevitably he moved on from Barking, joining Saracens, but he has never forgotten his roots. A single season saw his first team debut against Bridgend and a rapid ascent through London, England under-21 and England B to selection for the England squad to tour Argentina.

Argentina was not yet the force it has since become, but was already a supreme test of scrummagers, and there was the additional burden of being the first England team in any sport to visit after the Falklands War.

Leonard was much the junior and outsider of the four props -- Jeff Probyn, Victor Ubogu and Mark Linnett were the others -- but played his way into the test team with an impressive display at Tucuman, described by fellow-tourist Brian Moore as "surely the most hostile place to play in the world".

Leonard recalled that he has "never been more scared on a rugby field" than on his debut in Buenos Aires. Union Jacks were being burnt on the terraces and it was "the dirtiest game imaginable". England won 25-12. The second Test saw their first ever loss to Argentina. Moore recalled that "if the tour produced little of merit for English rugby, then at least it produced Jason".

His move across London to join Harlequins brought further progression in his career. Within little more than a year he was playing in a World Cup final, and was a fixture in England squads for the next 13 years. He became the common factor in two superb England teams -- Geoff Cooke's of the early 90s and Clive Woodward's a decade later -- a three-time Lion and four-time winner of the Grand Slam. Though while regularly mentioned as a candidate, he only captained England twice -- the first time against Argentina in 1996, a match which also saw his only international try.

The Pumas propensity for figuring in his career landmarks recurred again in 2000 when they were the opponents as he overtook Rory Underwood's record of 84 England caps. His 93rd, overtaking Sean Fitzpatrick as the most-capped forward of all time, came in the 134-0 stomping of Romania in 2001. His 100th -- making him the third player of all time, the first Englishman and the first forward to reach that target -- came in the defeat of France in 2003 which was horribly overshadowed by the sudden death of his young Harlequins and England teammate Nick Duncombe. Number 112, later in the same year and taking him past Patrick Sella's record, was France again and infinitely happier -- the World Cup semifinal in Sydney.

That cap, like seven of his last 10 for England and the last three of his five for the Lions, was won as a replacement. On that basis it seemed possible he might go on forever, but he was anything but a bit-part player during that period. As late as June 2003 he and Graham Rowntree, who did make the World Cup squad and could in part blame his ill-luck on Leonard's ability to play both sides, had anchored the England pack during the extraordinary period when they resisted the All Black pack while reduced to six men by sin-binnings.

And he played in every match in the World Cup, culminating in his vital, possibly game-changing appearance as a 76th minute-replacement in the final. Andre Watson's non-stop penalising of England's aggressive scrummaging was arguably the main reason Australia were still in the game. Coach Clive Woodward told Leonard "with all your experience, you sort it out".

Leonard duly did. "I went on and I didn't scrummage," he explained. That it went against all instinct shows quite how smart a player he was. It was in its own way as vital a contribution to victory as Jason Robinson's try or Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop-goal.

A replacement appearance against Italy the following January completed an international career of 119 appearances, including 114 for England. That he had won 89 of them, including 86 for England, was also a record at the time. George Gregan took the caps and wins record -- now both held by Richie McCaw -- while Gethin Jenkins has overtaken his numbers as a prop.

The incomparably knowledgeable John Griffiths in 2003 rated him top of a list of England's 50 greatest players, followed by Wilkinson, Rob Andrew, WJA Davies, Martin Johnson and Wavell Wakefield. Only Wakefield of that group can also claim Leonard's more recent achievement of being president of the Rugby Football Union, an distinction that one suspects would have amazed not only the Barking schoolboy but the mature England prop forward.

But best of all he is a living contradiction of one of sport's least likeable clichés. He shows that nice guys can come first.