In the pantheon of prop forwards, few stand as tall as Jason Leonard. World Cup winner, four-time Grand Slam champion, president of the Rugby Football Union, and the person who’s played the most times in an England rugby shirt.
But, in that final category, the man they call the ‘Fun Bus’ is about to be dethroned – by another prop forward, and one who he inspired.
On Wednesday night, against France at the Twickenham Stoop, fellow Rugby World Cup winner Rochelle Clark MBE (or Rocky to pretty much everyone who knows her) should win her 114th England cap, coming off the bench.
That would equal Leonard’s record, and provided she makes at least one other appearance in the Old Mutual Wealth Series this autumn, Clark will become England’s most capped player before Christmas.
It was back in 2003, as Leonard and his England team-mates were sweeping all before them on the way to becoming world champions, that Clark made her debut, against Canada in the Churchill Cup.
Inspired by the ‘Fun Bus’ Jason Leonard
“When I first started playing, it was towards the end of his career. It was fantastic to be so inspired by the Fun Bus: it’s great to even have my name associated with his,” Clark told me. “He’s been a stalwart of the team and that’s something I aspire to. As a fellow loose-head prop, I’ve been looking up to him for a long time.”
Leonard is equally full of praise for his successor-in-waiting.
“Rocky is special. To play that level of competition for that length of that time, she’s an inspiration for everyone in rugby, not just women and girls coming through but for everyone. She’s a real credit to her family, her friends and the game.”
That game has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 13 years. Increased investment in women’s rugby, with 48 England players now on some kind of professional contract with the RFU, has led to greater levels of professionalism and fitness.
Strength and conditioning coaches are now part of the game for women as well as men. And for the first time in this series, their shirts are specifically designed to fit the female form.
Evolution of the game
“Looking at team photos from 2003, you could see players were a little bit soft around the edges – including me!” admits Clark. “Today it’s hard to tell what positions they play in. That’s testament to the strength and conditioning coaches, and the commitment that the girls have put in.
“We had these big baggy shirts – I was OK as I was a big girl, but the likes of Nollie Waterman, who’s tiny – she was running around in a tent. It’s great to have a shirt that’s specific to us.”
At the height of his playing career it was said that Jason Leonard could have gone into any pub in the Richmond-Upon-Thames area and never once have to buy a drink.
England players like World Cup-winning captain Katy McLean and star back Emily Scarratt may have have raised the profile of the women’s game, but Clark could stroll around the most rugby-obsessed parts of the Royal Borough in her Red Roses’ shirt and would probably not be bothered.
That low profile suits her, though, and she believes she can have an important influence on young women who are searching for their perfect sporting fit.
“I would think that I am a role model, certainly in my journey from my bigger days when I was over 100 kilos (15st 7lb). I had to really lose weight and get focused and I think that’s an inspiring story,” she said.
“I do lots of appearances and motivational talks to young people, telling them what they can achieve if they put their mind to it. Rugby is the perfect game for everybody, you can be any size, short, tall, skinny, whatever; there’s always a position for you.”
A record-breaking role model
Away from her England commitments and her club career with Worcester, Clark finds time to be head coach at Chesham Stags Rugby Club in Buckinghamshire. There, she is one of those rare finds, a woman coaching men.
“I absolutely love it. At my first training session I was a little bit nervous and I went in all guns blazing, and they knew they weren’t to mess with me,” she revealed.
“But it’s great, you get such good banter from them, they’re really respectful and supportive. A lot of the guys will be at the game to watch me.
“When I got my 100th cap they had two busloads come down and they wore Rocky masks in the crowd.”
Now two more landmarks lie ahead for Clark. First to overtake Jason Leonard’s 114 caps, then to surpass the 115 won by Scotland’s Donna Kennedy, the world record holder in the women’s game, and coincidentally Clark’s coach at Worcester.
She will have her first chance off the bench against France, with New Zealand, Canada and Ireland to follow over the next few weeks.
If all goes well, and she says her body is in better shape at the age of 35 than it was 10 years ago, she could be part of the Red Roses’ squad which defends the World Cup next summer in Ireland. Clark is certainly not planning her retirement just yet.
“As you can probably tell, I love the game,” she said. “I’ll keep going until they don’t select me. I’ll probably turn up with my boots and they’ll say – go home Rocky.”
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/37901197