Jason White: The Great White who has rivals fearing the sack

Sale's Scotland flanker has left a trail of battered opponents behind him over a punishing season that reaches its brutal climax in today's Premiership Final against Leicester at Twickenham, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The profoundly comical game of rugby union has thrown up funnier stories - two England props of repute, Gareth Chilcott and Jason Leonard, tell side-splitting tales about the former national coach Jack Rowell, one concerning the temporary concealment of a very expensive watch, the other about the abrupt disposal of an equally valuable set of car keys - but this one was a gem, nevertheless.

When the renowned pundits of Sky Sports named their Premiership team of the season at an awards dinner in London on Wednesday night, the words "Jason" and "White" did not pass their lips. It was an instant classic. Had Peter Cook and Spike Milligan been on the selection panel, they would have struggled to register a better score on the laughometer.

Philippe Saint-André, who manages White at club level and collected a nice gong at the same event for his impressive work as Sale's director of rugby, was deeply amused, in an ironic kind of way. "This, I do not understand," said the Frenchman. "The English and their humour - it is strange, I think.

"No White? Jason has been fantastic this season. He has won us matches with his tackling. Some players win games by kicking goals, some by scoring tries, some by strategy and organisation. Jason wins them because he is a big presence. When he hits you... boom!"

At Sale, the coaches divide these hits into three categories: the passive, which club players around the country would recognise as a traditional over-the-shoulder, go-with-the-flow, non-aggressive tackle that allows the opponent to retain possession at the breakdown while leaving the defender's collar bone in one piece; the offload, which has more of a clatter about it but still permits the ball-carrier to pass to a colleague; and the sack, which is the exclusive preserve of man-eating flankers like White.

"When we talk about the sack, we mean a major hit behind the gain line - a really heavy, full-body smash that relieves the opponent of the ball and, more often than not, leaves him in a bloody big heap," explained Kingsley Jones, the former Wales flanker who has been coaching the Sale forwards under Saint-André's all-seeing eye.

"Jason is our main man in this regard. We have people who make more tackles in a game - Magnus Lund [who plays in the breakaway position, with White on the blind side], is top of the count, as you would expect a No 7 to be.

"But Jason is the sack man. He puts in half a dozen big ones a game, and makes them count. I used to make 20 tackles a match in my playing days, and no one noticed any of them. When Jason tackles, people very definitely notice - and not just the poor sod on the end of it, either."

Not that White is the sort to notice people noticing. There is nothing of the showboater about him, nothing artificial; indeed, he is as good as he is because he understands the difference between effectiveness and affectation. As the captain of Scotland, he sees the game through bleakly realistic Scottish eyes.

The self-serving theatricality of an Austin Healey or a Matt Dawson, two of the less popular visitors to Murrayfield over the last decade, is utterly foreign to him. He talks himself down rather than up. Not to put too fine a point on it, he would rather not talk about himself at all.

"There is no great secret to tackling," he said this week after completing most of a vigorous training-field stint ahead of today's Guinness Premiership Final with Leicester at Twickenham. "It's about timing, about split-second judgement, about making the right decision at the right moment."

Does he glory in the sack tackle the way Mark Cueto or Jason Robinson might wallow in the spiritually uplifting act of try-scoring? "I don't see it like that," he replied. "I'd love to score tries - I don't know much about it, but it looks like fun. Basically, I do what I do for the team. It's what I bring to the common effort."

All very public-spirited. Yet White, for whom the cult of the individual serves no purpose, has been one of the central figures on the rugby radar this season. His form for Sale was successfully translated to the international arena, where he led his country to a Six Nations revival with victories over France, Italy and - sheer bliss - dear old England.

Having started his Test career with a Calcutta Cup victory in 2000, it was his performance, along with those of his back-row colleagues Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor, that laid the foundations for this latest Scottish uprising. Fittingly, the match ended with a tackle by White on Joe Worsley, his opposite number, that left the Londoner in a shallow grave and buried the world champions' Grand Slam ambitions six feet under.

It is possible to argue that the Scots have never before produced a forward quite like the 28-year-old from Edinburgh. Heaven knows, there have been some decent blue-shirted loose forwards over the last 20 years: David Leslie, Jim Calder and his brother Finlay, John Jeffrey, Iain Paxton, John Beattie, Derrick White, Rob Wainwright, all of them as tough as old boots.

But the current captain is 6ft 5in and 17st, which takes him out of the "lightweight marauder" category and places him squarely in the tank corps. Physically, he is cut from English cloth - not that he would acknowledge it for a second.

According to Jones, the conditioning staff at Sale have worked wonders with him. White agrees. "This has been as good a season as any from my perspective, and a lot of it is down to sound fitness and extra power," he said.

"But it's also true that I'm playing in a really strong, dominant pack for the first time in my career. Everyone who knows rugby understands that Scottish packs are invariably lighter than their opponents, and that consequently they play in a particular style, fighting for every scrap of possession that might be going and trying to make the most of whatever comes to hand.

"Sale are different. They had this reputation for playing free-flowing rugby through a great back division, but Philippe saw that to be successful, we would have to beef ourselves up and mix it up front. We have achieved that this season. I'm playing on the front foot here, and it makes life easier."

Easier, but by no means easy. Like most of his peers, White wants to play every game, and is considering turning out in the Scotland-Barbarians match on Wednesday, barely 96 hours after a meeting with Leicester that promises to be off the scale in terms of intensity.

He will certainly lead his country in South Africa next month, where they take on the Springboks in Durban and Port Elizabeth. That will take him through the 40-game barrier for the season. Had he been born English -not something he is prepared to contemplate, still less crave - the Twickenham hierarchy would be purple with anger.

"In an ideal world, I wouldn't play as many games as I do," he admitted. "But I'm pretty lucky in the sense that my body regenerates well and the medical support I receive is of the highest quality.

"And when it comes down to it, every game now is a big game, the kind of game no player would want to miss. Things have gone so well over the last few months that I don't even think about not playing. I've always worked hard at my rugby, but right now I feel a tremendous desire to get involved at every opportunity."

That much was evident a fortnight ago, when Sale beat Wasps in an eye-wateringly physical Premiership semi-final at Edgeley Park. Sixteen minutes into the contest, White attempted to wipe out the powerful New Zealand-born hooker Joe Ward - yes, to sack him - and got it comprehensively wrong. As a result, he was knocked out. There was considerable alarm amongst the Sale touch-line staff, who immediately waved for a stretcher.

Yet after regaining consciousness and spending a groggy minute or two recovering his faculties, he continued. Six of the home forwards were substituted that afternoon, yet White stayed on for the duration. Did it not occur to him that discretion is the better part of valour?

"I kept going because it mattered," he said. "A heavy knock is a heavy knock. I felt OK after it. End of story."

At Twickenham this afternoon, this season's Premiership story also reaches its end. White does not anticipate being laid out cold a second time, but he confidently expects unusual levels of ferocity.

"Leicester are the most challenging of opponents," he said. "They have this mentality that demands they contest everything with the utmost physicality - every set-piece, every phase, every single area of contact. I see this only in terms of an all-out battle."

A winnable battle? "I believe so," he responded. "We can stand up against any team. Parity against a side like Leicester used to be beyond us, but we know we can get parity now. That's as much as any side can ask. The rest will take care of itself."

Simply the best: Chris Hewett's highlights of the season

* PREMIERSHIP TEAM OF THE SEASON

15 Matt Burke (Newcastle)

The Falcons were anonymous, but the former Wallaby reminded people of their existence.

14 Tom Varndell (Leicester)

Suspect in defence? Probably, but who cares? Scored brilliant tries for fun.

13 Mathew Tait (Newcastle)

Used and abused by England in 2005, his rehabilitation is now complete. Watch him go.

12 Mike Catt (London Irish)

Rekindled the fires in his dotage. An exceptional contribution.

11 Tom Voyce (Wasps)

Avoided a slippage in standards. As dangerous as Varndell.

10 Charlie Hodgson (Sale)

A mature and consistent match-winner.

9 Shaun Perry (Bristol)

The left-field discovery of the season.

1 Kevin Yates (Saracens)

Saracens spent much of the season doing little, but their scrum was magnificent.

2 Lee Mears (Bath)

International coaches rarely pick 5ft 9in forwards nowadays, but Mears could not be ignored.

3 Darren Crompton (Bristol)

At 33, the journeyman prop anchored the Bristol scrum and their successful survival effort.

4 Bob Casey (London Irish)

The Exiles played some flashy rugby, but their heart was in precisely the right place.

5 Danny Grewcock (Bath)

Many of the lock's performances were of Test standard.

6 Jason White (Sale)

When he tackled a rival, the poor soul tended to stay tackled.

7 Andy Hazell (Gloucester)

The hardest-working flanker in England modernised his game and was even better than usual.

8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon (London Irish)

Argentinian rugby may be in financial ruins, but he can start naming his price. Stunning

* BEST OCCASION

The London Irish v Sale match drew a 20,000 crowd to the Madejski Stadium and then lived up to the moment. And yes, there was perfect silence for the visiting goal-kicker.

* BEST SPIN DOCTORS

The Rugby Football Union, for pretending they won their abandoned court case with Premier Rugby.

* BEST DIPLOMAT

Philippe Saint-André of Sale, for resisting the temptation to strangle the referee Roy Maybank after losing to Gloucester at Kingsholm.

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