Great White ready to bite back

Playing means everything for former Scotland captain, even out of position, writes Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

He is not the first JPR to make an impression in what used to be known as the International Championship. He is not the first to be asked to play out of position for the greater good of his national team either. But then, the original JPR – John Peter Rhys Williams, of Junior Wimbledon (he beat David Lloyd in the 1966 final, 6-4, 6-4), Bridgend, Wales and British Lions fame – had to switch from backs to forwards for his country in Sydney in 1978.

The No 7 shirt that the great sideburned, swashbuckling full-back collected as a stand-in openside flanker in that 19-17 defeat against Australia, takes pride of place among the 55 Welsh jerseys that JPR Williams collected in the course of his distinguished international rugby union career.

At Murrayfield this afternoon JPR White lines up as a stand-in for Scotland in the second row against Italy. Not for the first time. Of the 71 caps is his collection, Jason Phillip Randall White has earned eight as a lock. His 72nd appearance for his country will be his third in a row in the Scottish boilerhouse, the Aberdonian having donned the No 4 shirt in the Six Nations defeats against Wales and France. It will be for the greater good, rather than personal preference.

"Ideally, I'd like to be at No 6," White said. "I think that's my best position. But, as anyone would, I'd play for Scotland in any position. My remit for the last two games has been to go out and do a job in the second row, and it will be the same against Italy. I'll do that to the best of my ability. I think I've done OK in the last couple of games."

It is typical of White to put his nose to the grindstone for his country so selflessly. For nine years, the Sale Shark has been putting his body on the line for Scotland. He first did so in the famous Calcutta Cup upset against England in a Murrayfield monsoon in 2000, packing down in the back row alongside the native New Zealander Martin Leslie and the Channel Islander Budge Pountney. He wore the No 6 shirt that day and it has been as a blindside flanker that the Caledonian JPR has made his name in the international game.

In 2006, White was an irresistible force for Scotland as their captain and talismanic back-row battering ram, inspiring them to Six Nations victories against France and England at Murrayfield, and against Italy in Rome, and also narrowly losing a penalty shoot-out against Ireland in Dublin.

Already lauded by Finlay Calder, the former Scotland flanker, as "the new Great White Shark", a worthy successor to the snowy-haired John Jeffrey in the Scottish No 6 shirt, he was memorably described by his back-row colleague Simon Taylor as, "the kind of brute you can imagine clearing skulls with a battle axe, or one of those spiky balls on a chain, in days of yore."

The great pity for Scotland and their great brute of a blindside flanker is that since 2006, when he picked up the Premiership and Professional Rugby Players' Association Player of the Year awards, he has not been able to get to grips with a Six Nations campaign in a No 6 shirt. White missed the whole of the 2007 championship after tearing anterior cruciate ligaments against Romania at Murrayfield in autumn 2006. Last year, after suffering a head injury in Scotland's second game, away to Wales, he lost his place to Alasdair Strokosch, coming on as a replacement in the final two matches, against England at Murrayfield and Italy in Rome. He also lost the Scotland captaincy, to Mike Blair.

White's start to the present season was delayed after knee and shoulder surgery in the summer. He was just starting to show glimpses of that blinding blindside form of 2006 when he suffered a dislocated finger playing for Sale on Boxing Day. "Yeah, I was picking up form," he reflected. "Got man of the match against Wasps. But that's life. I've learned to deal with that, with the injuries I've had in the last couple of years. It is very frustrating, but that's the life of a professional sportsman."

With Nathan Hines on the casualty list at the start of the 2009 Six Nations, and now Jim Hamilton too, the Great White Sale Shark has been required to start picking up match-fitness and form again as an out of position filler-in. At least the 30-year-old, who leaves Sale in the summer for Clermont Auvergne, will have a specialist lock alongside him today, the Glasgow captain Alastair Kellock. Against France a fortnight ago, White had Taylor for company in a makeshift second row for 62 minutes after Hamilton departed with a shoulder injury.

It is an Italian Job that Scotland can ill afford to botch. The national team have a two-wins-out-of-five target set by the Scottish Rugby Union for the Six Nations, and with Ireland to come at home and England away they need a victory against the lesser lights of the championship.

"There's always pressure," White said. "Personally, I think the biggest thing is to perform well for the fans, because we didn't do that against Wales in our last game at Murrayfield. Our mindset is to build on our performance in France. Without doubt, we could have won that game. It's about us learning from that and making sure we win against Italy."