Having played host to the European Grand Prix Sevens Series for the first time last weekend, the home of the Exeter Chiefs is now busy gearing itself up to welcome Tonga, Namibia, Italy, Georgia and Romania as part of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Leonard, who has recently taken up the post of President of the Rugby Football Union, helped to open Sandy Park back in 2006 and has been suitably impressed by the way the club have gone about their business – on and off the field – since that time.
“You can’t help but be impressed,” said Leonard. “The game as a whole is very impressed with the way Exeter have gone about things over the last few years. They are the blueprint of how you get a side out of the Championship and establish it as a force within the English and European game.
“What I like about it all is that despite moving with the times, they have remained a local club, a family club, and they’ve not tried to run before they can walk. With a guy like Tony Rowe at the front of it all, it’s fantastic to see what they’ve done here and it’s a huge success story.”
The former Harlequins prop was in the region not only to help promote the RWC Trophy Tour, but also take in the Grand Prix Sevens, which was being staged at Sandy Park for the first time.
Although England were defeated 14-5 in the Cup Final by Series winners France, Leonard hailed the weekend as a “huge success” and believes the event will only get bigger and better next year.
“I think it’s been a great weekend and you can see everybody has had a great time,” added Leonard, who is England’s most capped forward of all time with a total of 114 international games under his belt.
“It’s been well organised, the weather – on the whole – has been good and everything we have seen over the past two days shows that Exeter can put on a great tournament. There have been some great matches, decent crowds and an electric atmosphere.
“If you add all those ingredients together, I think that all bodes really well for the World Cup coming here in a few months’ time.”
With the countdown to the Rugby World Cup gaining momentum by the day, Leonard admits it’s a ‘honour and privilege’ to be president in such a special year for English rugby.
“Of course it’s a special year for English rugby,” said Leonard, who was part of England’s World Cup winning squad of 2003. “To be president of the RFU in such a momentous year is an honour and privilege for me and something I will treasure.
“Already I’ve seen how excited how people are getting through the Trophy Tour and I think that will only grow as we get nearer the tournament. To see the smiles on people’s faces is what rugby is all about and I’m sure we will deliver a terrific World Cup.
“You only have to look at the support down here in this part of the world – they love their rugby here and it’s a real hotbed of players, teams and supporters. You’ve seen over this weekend, people weren’t just shouting and screaming for England, they were supporting all the other countries as well and it will be the same for the World Cup. It’s that kind of pride and passion that will make the World Cup a memorable experience for so many people.”
And among those hoping to feature during this autumn’s spectacle are Exeter Chiefs quartet Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Geoff Parling and Henry Slade, all of whom are currently part of Stuart Lancaster’s training squad for the tournament.
Leonard says he’s like the make-up of Lancaster’s mix and is encouraged by the amount of players who have progressed through the younger international ranks.
Cowan-Dickie, Nowell and Slade have all featured prominently for England’s age groups, most notably helping them to win the Under-20s World Cup two years ago – and the RFU president says the emergence of such talent shows the system is working.
“We’ve had great success with the younger levels over the last few years, especially the Under-20s,” continued Leonard. “Bringing through such talent is key to the future and I know here in Exeter they are doing a great job on that front.
“As I’ve said before, it all bodes well for the future and hopefully for the World Cup in September and October.”
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