Jason Leonard says 'rugby looks after its own' as new charity initiative is launched
By Keith Moore
Last Updated: 22/01/19 6:28pm
Jason Leonard says "rugby looks after its own" as he launched The Front Row Club to help raise funds for the Atlas Foundation.
After 114 Tests for England and five for the British and Irish Lions, Leonard called time on his international career in 2004 having reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Despite his many accolades, including winning the World Cup with England in 2003, it is the game's basic principles - those that made him fall in love with rugby in the first place - that remain close to his heart as he continues to help bring rugby to those less fortunate than him.
"I think rugby as a sport… we do try and help," Jason Leonard told Sky Sports at the launch of his new charity, The Front Row Club. "We say it, and it's not flippant when we say it, rugby is a family and you look after your own.
"If someone is heading down the wrong track, you would expect your team-mates or your club-mates or someone at the club to have a quiet word. That's what rugby's all about."
Leonard has given back to the game in many forms since his retirement, and says he was recently advised to harness his efforts under the umbrella of one organisation which led to the launch of the Atlas Foundation.
"I run a charity dinner every year, I've done it since retiring. I used to choose very small charities which was great because you knew that the money you raised was helping the charity directly and you had a bit more bang for your buck in that aspect, so it goes a long way.
"Someone suggested to me, just to make it cleaner and tidier, 'Why don't you create your own foundation?'
"The reason it was called Atlas - I didn't want to call it the Jason Leonard Foundation or something like that - is because of Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"Because of rugby I've been quite lucky going around some very lovely places around the world, but no matter where you go in the world, normally where you've got a lot of wealth, there's poverty just around the corner.
"I wanted a charity that we could use the values of rugby, but the principles of rugby as well; rugby's a family and you look after each other."
Leonard is visibly passionate about rugby, but it's a passion that came late in life with the arrival of a new member of his school's staff.
"I come from an area that's a football area," Leonard said. "There was no rugby in my school until a Welsh PE teacher turned up and looked at us and said 'I've looked at the school curriculum and I can see that you don't play rugby'.
"We were all sitting there saying 'Yeah, you're right, we're all in our football gear.'"
"He said, 'Well you will do next year'."
It was the start of career during which the 50-year-old says he was helped enormously along the way by the sport's community.
"People picking you up, dropping you off - you go through your representative rugby and you're travelling through all the home counties .
"At that time you're only a baby and your mum and your dad's busy so you're jumping into cars with people.
"One of the coaches will go 40 or 50 miles out of their way to come and pick you and a couple of other guys up to take you to a trial. They don't have to, they could tell you that they'd meet you there but they didn't do that.
"When you're standing there as an international about to play a game of rugby for England, during the national anthems you're thinking about your family, your friends, your team-mates, but you're also thinking about those people that helped you get to where you are on that journey - those teachers, those parents, other kids' parents as well. That's why rugby's such a great sport."
The World Cup winner's Atlas Foundation is about taking rugby to disadvantaged areas of the world, giving children a chance to learn the principles of rugby as a way of helping to give them a focus where there are limited opportunities.
"You're not talking about producing international players," said Leonard. "This is not about getting Argentinian slum kids into the Pumas - if it happens that's great, but it's about improving their life. It's about giving them those values in rugby; the respect, the enjoyment, the teamwork.
"We've got 20 projects on in 15 countries, currently helping over 20,000 children and we want that to grow. That's part of The Front Row Club going forward, because the more money we raise the more money we can spend on kids in these projects."
Pressed on the Front Row Club that has been launched as part of the Atlas Foundation, Leonard said: "It's a members club. We wanted to create something that's fun, something that people can join up to and enjoy it.
"It can be as serious as people want to take it, talk about what's happening in the game, or jovial or jokey, it's so people have that forum and voice to get involved and have a bit of banter - and where better than the front row?
"So you sign up to the Front Row Club, your membership gives you access to the forum itself and all the platforms there, but you've also got prizes, draws and everything like that.
"The money that's raised from that goes straight to the projects regarding the Atlas Foundations. So, while this is a very fun, entertaining vehicle, it's helping kids around the world.
"You don't have to be a front rower to be in it, you can be any position, but it seemed perfect to me. All the guys I know, all the front rowers who are part of Atlas - there are a number of us - will make it good fun."
One of the people helping out is for Springbok captain John Smit, who is doing a bike ride - with Leonard adding he always knows how much training Smit is doing.
"John's weight goes up and down depending on how much he's actually on the bike," Leonard said. "So if he's not on the bike much he gets big, once he's on the bike he gets very small again!"
Smit is one of many former legends of the game helping the Atlas Foundation to raise money and build facilities in areas that desperately need it, which Leonard says is a testament to the sport.
"It's the friendships you make on the pitch that last forever. That's the values of rugby. That's why it's been so successful for the Atlas Foundation, and I believe The Front Row club will be a success in that aspect as well, because it's friendships, it's values, it's family.
"When a group of rugby people get together, something will happen and I'm always very confident it will be for the better."
Jason Leonard was speaking as part of the launch of The Front Row Club, a new charitable initiative giving fans unique access to tickets and events and the views of some of the biggest names in rugby.