Heineken Cup: All eyes on Leonard but young stand-off shuns the limelight

Edinburgh prospect to continue rise against Racing tonight but insists he’s no star yet, writes David Ferguson

THE MOST animated Harry Leonard gets during a chat in Edinburgh is when it is suggested that he is among a group of young men beginning to light up Scottish rugby.

Up until that point, he’d been a fairly relaxed interviewee, looking back on his life so far from childhood in Brighton to the Heineken Cup, via Prestonpans, the long grass of Meggetland and training sessions with All Black Dan Carter.

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It was all very convivial but, the suggestion he was a rising star, brought the teenager out of his chair.

“No, no, no, you can’t say that,” said the 19-year-old, with a stare. “I’m not the latest ‘star’. Not in the slightest. I’ve only played three games, four hopefully this week and, hopefully, five next week. I just keep looking to the next job, next training session and next game.”

Although his European debut was in a remarkable 20-19 win for Edinburgh away at London Irish, Leonard added: “My target is to play better this week because I wasn’t happy with how I played in my first Heineken Cup match and, looking long-term, I’d love to get selected for the Scotland under-20s again this year and play in the World Championships in South Africa, which would be an amazing experience.”

While Leonard is reassured that he’s not about to be put on a pedestal, there is no doubt, that his emergence alongside 21-year-old inside centre Matt Scott and fellow stand-off Gregor Hunter (20) at Edinburgh is exciting.

At Glasgow stand-off Duncan Weir (20), locks Grant Gilchrist (21) and Richie Gray (22), and back rows Stuart McInally (21), David Denton (21), Ryan Wilson (22) and Rob Harley (21) are also creating a new sense of hope in the Scottish game.

The absence of Scotland players at the World Cup allowed some of those youngsters a run of games and now, while there is every possibility that Leonard and his young cohorts will suffer some knockbacks in this weekend’s European challenges, they are unlikely to shrink into the background.

So far Leonard has faced Leinster and Ireland No 10 Jonny Sexton, Treviso’s Italy cap Kris Burton and another talented Kiwi in Dan Bowden at London Irish.

He has emerged with two wins and a narrow defeat, 22 points and a DVD-full of lessons on life in the professional game.

Tonight his opposite ten is Juan Martin Hernandez, the Puma once labeled the most talented stand-off in the northern hemisphere.

“It has been quite an introduction,” says Leonard. “I didn’t do any of the pre-season because I didn’t get back from [a scholarship trip to] New Zealand until early August. I had to catch up with fitness, was playing for Boroughmuir and then, a few weeks ago, got my first start against Leinster.

“I remember looking up at Jonny Sexton and thinking ‘I only ever see this guy on TV or Youtube’, but you just have to get on with it I guess. I’ve been in the right place at the right time to an extent and it’s going to be cool to play against Racing Metro. They have a lot of big names but it will be great to take them on.

“I was a bit disappointed with how I played against London Irish. I kicked two out on the full and missed two penalties. I also look back at Dave [Denton] getting smashed by [Shontayne] Hape. I passed him the ball and remember thinking when he got hit ‘oh God, I owe him a drink’.

“I never saw that coming, sadly, and it’s terrible that he’s not playing this week.

“The good thing is there are lots of experienced guys around me. Having Mossy [Chris Paterson] against Leinster was good, and guys like Mike Blair, Greig Laidlaw and Nick de Luca are helping me and Matt hugely during the game. They take a lot of weight off your shoulders.”

Just two years ago Leonard was living at home and attending the independent school, Brighton College. After missing out on Scotland selection at under-17 level he returned with the Exiles under-18s and did win a place in the national side.

His father Peter, the chairman at Brighton RFC, and his Glasgow-born mother were delighted to see the youngest of their four children making waves in her homeland.

Now, as an anticipated crowd of over 4,000 settle into their Murrayfield seats tonight, they’ll be hoping to see him seize the moment against the mega-rich French club Racing Metro 92 in a crucial Heineken Cup Pool 2 match.

Yet Leonard remains a teenager getting to grips with life nearly 500 miles from home. He still vividly recalls the day in February when Edinburgh offered him a two-year elite development contract. He was also named in the Scotland under-20 team against France. “And I was given my Scotland kit,” he adds, the gleam in his eye suggesting that was what made his day.

“It has been an amazing year. I was born and bred in Brighton, but Scotland as a nation is very patriotic. My mum and my dad, are just huge fans of mine and, when you see a door opening, you push hard.

“Everything moved quite quickly with me playing for the Exiles, finishing school and then being offered a place with the Scottish institute, the tier below the academy. I moved into a flat with under-18 team-mate Robin Hislop who played for Boroughmuir, and went along there with him.

“My first experience was at Preston Lodge Tens with the Boroughmuir Bears – their third team. There wasn’t much of a crowd and, compared to the level I’d been playing at at Brighton College, I remember thinking ‘wow, I’ve dropped a bit’. It was a good tournament, but I guess it was a reality check that this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I thought.

“I’d always wanted to be a professional rugby player and still do – I’m only in the academy – and after a few weeks I got into the seconds, worked hard and got into the firsts and it began to take off.”

Leonard was selected for the Scotland under-20s, a year early, offered that development contract by Edinburgh and then became the captain of the under-20 side during an otherwise forgettable winless Six Nations campaign.

After that he was chosen, along with Gilchrist and George Turner, to benefit from the John Macphail Scholarship. He spent 18 weeks in New Zealand with the International High Performance Unit at Canterbury, training alongside Crusaders players, including Carter.

That meant missing the Junior World Championships but Leonard still has another year at under-20 level and the benefitted greatly from the scholarship.

“It was an amazing experience, a great life experience as well as the rugby,” he said. “Meeting lots of nice people, including All Blacks, who are amazingly down to earth.

“My mentor was Tabai Matson [ex-Crusaders, All Black and Fiji centre], who is the Canterbury coach, and I lived with John Haggert, the High Performance unit coach, so we sat down most evenings and talked rugby. It opened my eyes to small details, not so much what to do, but more why.

“Why you take this option, why people should run this or that line, why to kick and where.

“My kicking game came on a huge amount, but my whole tactical thinking and game understanding improved. I’ve got a long way to go but it has given me a lot of ideas.”

The youngster is also studying business management at university part-time but he insisted: “It’s great and I’m really enjoying myself. It’s an amazing experience to play against these great teams, and alongside the quality players Edinburgh have, but I just focus on the next training session and the next game.

“I was nervous before the London Irish game – the Madejski is not Meggetland – and I don’t eat a lot before games but, once I get out for the warm-up, the focus is on the job.”