Rugby Union: The open secret of Wasps

Paul Trow talks to Buster White, the unsung hero from the school of hard hits
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A sense of humour undoubtedly helps when you acquire a nickname while still in your pram. But even Mike White, known as Buster to friend, foe and fan alike thanks to his bonny physique as a baby, had his ability to laugh sorely tested last week.

While Wasps are poised to tighten their grip on a second Courage League title in seven years against Sale today, it seems that their all-action, no-nonsense open-side flanker has been a little hard done by. With 18 of his countrymen selected to tour South Africa with the Lions, the uncapped White had realistic hopes of a place in England's 30-strong party for Argentina. But in a week when Steve Claridge struck a resounding blow for 31-year-old sportsmen everywhere, he was again overlooked.

Wasps' director of rugby Nigel Melville, for one, was not amused. "Every time he isn't selected, we ask the England management why not and they never come up with a satisfactory answer," said Melville, who was White's flatmate when he first moved to London from his native Dorset as a 19- year-old in 1985. "He's worked really hard and come on a lot. He's a very important member of our team."

Just how important is known well to the Wasps faithful who have admired White's commitment and skill over the years at Sudbury and, this season, Loftus Road. Indeed, as a supporters' nomination for team player of the year last season he won a three-week holiday in New York.

But the modest White finds it hard to conceal his dismay at the latest snub to his international aspirations. "I'm very disappointed to miss out, especially as it doesn't look as though they've based their selection on current form," he said. "I've had a few disappointments in my time, though, and I can only think I've done something wrong."

The shrug of the shoulders which accompanies this observation belies the fierce competitive instincts which have kept White in the first team despite being only a part-time professional and also holding down a busy marketing job with Nike.

Ironically, a recent promotion means that he will come closer to the England squad next season than ever before - as the manager in charge of their new kit contract.

"If I was 25 or younger, I would definitely give full-time rugby a go. I'm contracted to Wasps for two more years, but at my age it would be madness to give up a good career."

Despite his limited availability for training, White blends well with his fellow first-choice back-row forwards, the England pair Lawrence Dallaglio and Chris Sheasby. "It's definitely the best-balanced back row I've played in at the club. We've tackled well as a unit, with three players doing their correct jobs. A few years ago, I'd play alongside guys who were perhaps too similar to me, like Mark Rigby or David Pegler."

Mention of Rigby and Pegler underlines Wasps' historical penchant for fiery loose forwards of the unsung-hero variety, a tradition which White perpetuates. "I'm 6ft 1in and 151/2 stone so my strengths are my pace and ability to take the ball forward. We play a fast game so I have to make sure I recycle quick ball. I've had to work hard to improve my handling skills, but so did Peter Winterbottom, who I've always tried to model myself on. Obviously I do a lot of tackling, but then we all do. We're a lot fitter than in previous seasons and the ball's in play far longer."

White scores the occasional try as well - four so far this season. "That's about my usual quota, but there was one I really enjoyed against Saracens when I showed Francois Pienaar a turn of pace. I've always been reasonably fast, but how quickly you read the game is more important."

And how does White read the future, both for Wasps and himself? "There's a lot of young talent here at the club but we'll probably need to recruit in one or two positions for next season, though that will be down to Nigel." Meanwhile, White's absence from the Pampas this summer means he is free to marry his fiancee Denise in June. That is one match for which he is definitely selected.