BY STEFAN FROST
For Stephen Leonard, rugby has helped ease the pressure of life in the laboratory.
The back row forward, who plays in National League 1 for 12th-placed Blackheath, featured in his side’s tight 30-36 loss to Plymouth Albion last Saturday.
Alongside his rugby career, Leonard is completing a PhD in medicine at Cambridge University and enjoys having multiple avenues of interest.
“I’ve always strived to have different things going on,” he said. “You can easily get wrapped up in the lab so Saturdays are a nice distraction. I view rugby as a great stress reliever.”
Leonard is yet to decide what he wants to do once his studies end but no matter what he chooses, rugby will continue to be an important part of his life.
“I’m coming to the end of my seventh year at university and I’m keen to take time out of intense academia,” he acknowledged.
“Rugby is in my thought process for the future. I might try two or three seasons more and see what happens.”
Leonard is thriving at Blackheath but he is quick to highlight that his experiences at Cambridge have helped him transition seamlessly to life as a semi-professional rugby player.
He captained the Light Blues for two and a half of his six seasons with the side and earnt his full blues in the process.
He also became the first person since Mark Bailey in 1984 to captain the men’s side for two consecutive years.
And in 2019, he captained a team which included veteran internationals James Horwill and Flip van der Merwe to varsity victory.
In spite of these individual accolades, Leonard continues to champion the people working around him.
He admits: “We’re fortunate at Cambridge to have a good rugby set-up.
“I’ve tried not to stagnate at university like other players tend to do and the coaching staff have helped me with that.”
Cambridge head coach James Shanahan has been particularly influential in developing Leonard’s career.
Shanahan is also the head coach at Blackheath and decided to invite his university captain to train with the London team in 2019.
After taking part in pre-season, Leonard proved his worth and quickly became a mainstay in the Blackheath squad.
By Leonard’s own admission, playing against National League 2 opposition when at Cambridge helped him adjust to the standard of rugby being played in National League 1.
It felt like a natural progression for him, but not without its challenges.
He explained: “There’s a difference in how I use my voice at Blackheath. I joined alongside 25 new players.
“With everyone in the same boat, we had to build a new culture at the club which is the root cause of our tumultuous start to the season.”
As it stands, Blackheath have won two out of their eight opening league fixtures, but many of their losses have been determined by a single score.
“We’ve been in a few close games and have come out on the wrong end of them,” adds Leonard. “It gnaws away at you but we’re not that far away from fourth in the table. It’s a really long season and there’s plenty still to play for.”
Blackheath secured their second win of the season two weeks ago with a hard fought 23-21 win over Tonbridge Juddians.
Leonard, who started at number eight for the visitors, praised the spirited fightback his team displayed after they went into the break trailing 15-3.
“In our half-time team talk we spoke about being more imposing in attack and building momentum by being more expansive,” he said. “We did that in the second half and managed to score three tries. It was important to get that win and now we need to repeat that type of performance. We’re progressing well -we just need to eradicate small errors.
“We always talk about what our point of difference is. We don’t have a giant forward pack like other teams in the league. But we’ve got a lot of talented new recruits and I think we’re beginning to click.”
Last Saturday, Blackheath picked up two points in a close loss to Plymouth Albion.
They play bottom-of-the-table Leeds Tykes on November 6.
While Leonard’s future remains uncertain, his value for Blackheath is concrete as he prepares to leave the confines of the lab once more to help push his side towards a third win of the season.
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