Stephen Leonard eager to carve out own style as captain of Cambridge University RUFC
Stephen Leonard’s election as the new captain of Cambridge University Rugby Union Football Club seems like a natural evolution.
The 22-year-old medical student is almost like part of the furniture and fittings of Grange Road, and it could be said that it was only a matter of when, not if, he would lead the Light Blues.
When Leonard first arrived at Cambridge to study at Emmanuel College in 2015, he was soon catapulted into the Blues’ squad and although being an unused replacement at the Varsity Match in Twickenham, then captain Don Stevens had predicted bright things for the fresher.
“It was quite a quick escalation, and I wasn’t quite there, I don’t think, at that point and was given a little bit more time, which was probably a good thing,” said Leonard.
“But I tore my ACL in the June after and had a really long recovery from that and didn’t get back playing until the September of 2017.”
Leonard brought a rich rugby pedigree with him to the Light Blues, having played for the Scarlets under-16 and the Wales under-16 A side.
He remained with the Scarlets at under-18, and in his second year of sixth form was captain of the first XV at Llandovery College, a landmark achievement in Wales.
But Leonard played down those early predictions of a future role at the Blues, putting it down to longevity – he is on an MB/PhD course, so in his fourth year of medicine before switching to a three-year PhD next year.
“I think a big part of it was that I turned up very enthused about rugby, and essentially it was one of those things that everyone was aware that I was here for a long time,” he says.
“I think it was a bit of a hope that I would keep progressing and hopefully take on some type of leadership role eventually.”
Having been elected, Leonard admits that it is taking a while to sink in.
His intention had always been to run for the captaincy if the circumstances were ever right, and having taken on a more senior role this season, the time was now with a large number of undergraduates in the squad.
“We didn’t really get the post-grad intake so it did mean that guys like Belly (Chris Bell) and myself were rocketed into leadership positions,” said Leonard.
“I felt as though we dealt with it quite well, and I looked at who was about next year and it seemed as though I might have to take on the mantle, and that was the big reason for going for it in reality.”
He is taking over from Nick Koster, who led by example on and off the pitch last year.
The South African managed to bring together a young squad to take the game to Oxford at Twickenham, but the Dark Blues’ experience – and particularly Ben Ransom – proved too much as they won 38-16.
But Leonard has glowing praise for his predecessor.
“Nick was absolutely phenomenal and I’m not sure whether people outside the club are aware of everything he was doing for us,” he says. “I’ve said on multiple occasions, I’m pretty sure that if there was anyone else who had taken the reins this year I think we could have had a bit of a disaster.
“It’s not because we didn’t have the potential or the players about but we just needed the right person to come in and mould it properly.
“He did incredibly well to rally a group of guys who were decent rugby players into pretty good athletes and much better rugby players by the end of it.
“Nick was unbelievable and I will definitely be getting in touch with him pretty frequently to help me out. Aside from his pro experience being quite useful in terms of some player development, it was more that he looked at the qualities we did have available to us and worked out how to use us to the best of our abilities.
“We had a bunch of guys who were really passionate about the club and really keen to improve so he kept setting good goals and basically worked really well as just a leader, not necessarily even a rugby captain.
“He set the standards really high, he set goals that were attainable and smashed those goals himself, and every training session would turn up and be inspirational.
“He was a great captain. It was gutting for us that we could not leave him with a Varsity win to be honest, because he definitely deserved it.”
Leonard is keen to put his own stamp on the squad and club though.
During his four years with the Light Blues, he has worked with captains Stevens, Daniel Dass, Charlie Amesbury and Koster, who have all had their own characteristics in what has been a changing time for the club.
There has been a greater emphasis on strength and conditioning, and a more professional environment created.
“It’s a strange one because it’s very easy to look at previous captains and think that’s the mould I want to set out for myself but I think it’s unrealistic to try to replicate what somebody else did,” says Leonard.
“All four of the captains I’ve seen were very good in their own ways, but all four of them have been pretty different in the way that they have done stuff.
“It’s largely about looking at what I feel are my strengths and weaknesses to do as well as I can in this role.
“There’s no doubt that I will be looking at the previous years and trying to take the best bits from it, and thankfully I have a ton of experience that I can phone
when I need it.”
It will be like a medical holy trinity as well, with fellow medics Rowan Beckett and Elliott Baines to support Leonard as club secretaries.
“Rowan has been involved with the club for three years now so I think is very excited to take on the role of secretary, and I think Elliott is also pretty excited about it as well,” said Leonard.
“It works pretty well for the pair of them as they are extremely close friends so in terms of divvying up work, I think it will be quite easy for them to keep communicating and splitting stuff between them.”