Julian White: Quiet master of passion play's dark arts

England must get back to basics against the Springboks, the prop Julian White tells Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The England players have buzz-words by the dictionary-load these days: they talk of "empowerment" and "responsibility", of "breadth" and "depth" and "understanding". Julian White has a vocabulary of his own, only a tiny proportion of which could accurately be described as abstract or philosophical. He is particularly fond of the phrase "back to basics" - a notion he believes would do a whole lot more for the reigning world champions than it did for the government of John Major, especially now the Springboks are in town. As everyone in rugby knows, South African forward play is as basic as it gets.

Even Brian Ashton, who has spent a coaching lifetime urging players to run into space rather than into each other, acknowledges that this afternoon's contest at Twickenham - the first of a two-Test series in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own significance - will be decided in large part by what happens in the "shitfight", to use a technical term. "We'll just have to love the confrontation more than they love it," the great attacking strategist said this week. Which takes some doing, quite frankly.

White enjoys the dark and dirty side of rugby as much as anyone. He just wishes there was more of it, rather than the sweetness and light stuff in evidence over the last six months. The England pack, so dominant against the Boks since losing in Pretoria in the summer of 2000, have not been seen in full warpaint since the start of the 2006 Six Nations Championship, when they took hold of the Welsh by the short and curlies, put the best part of 50 points on them and forced Martyn Williams, that outstanding open-side flanker from Cardiff Blues, to admit: "They're so strong up front. Come next year's World Cup, they'll be pretty much as powerful as in the last World Cup." So what happened?

"We haven't been getting it right in there, where it matters most," White said, without a moment's hesitation. "There's no point being too far ahead of yourself in this game, because if you don't have the ball, you can't play any sort of rugby, expansive or otherwise. Who have we been up against in the last two weeks? New Zealand and Argentina. What do they do, first and foremost? They get their basics right. New Zealand do a lot of other things too - they're a wonderful team - but when someone like Anton Oliver [the experienced hooker from Otago] says they learnt a lesson from England at the last World Cup, and that lesson was the vital importance of ball-winning forward play, you understand where they're coming from. You can't argue with the bloody All Blacks, can you? Not at the moment, anyway."

In general terms, props fall into two categories: the garrulous, talk-the-hind-legs-off-a-donkey kind - Jeff Probyn, Gareth Chilcott, Phil Vickery - and the strong, silent types. White, 18st 10lb and as wide as he is tall, falls four-squarely into the latter category. He is not a picker and chooser when it comes to chewing the fat: he is as quiet after a truly outstanding performance, like the one he delivered against the Boks at Twickenham in 2004, as he is after a mediocre one. In his considered opinion, rugby is a simple game better played than discussed. On the rare occasions he grants an audience, he tells it how it is.

"I think there is an element of us losing sight of what we're meant to be about as a forward pack," he admitted. "It's only a small element, but it's there. The way I see it, I'm in the side to do a few things well. While none of these things are particularly glamorous - I'm talking about scrummaging, mauling, lifting in the line-out, hitting rucks - they have to be done by someone, because if they aren't, the whole thing goes down the pan. I don't believe we were as good in these areas in the last two matches as we should have been. Why? I don't know. I wish I did, because it would save us all a lot of grief. What I do know is this: we have to get back up to speed and start winning the right kind of possession in the right parts of the field. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I consider it a bonus if I get my hands on the ball."

Well said, my man. Encore! "All our arses are on the line in this game, aren't they?" he continued. "Not just the coaches' arses, but the players' too. If we get it wrong now, it might be the last time some of us play for England, so I can see us being a lot more ruthless than we have been over the last fortnight." Is it still there, that ruthlessness? "Of course it is. It makes me laugh when people accuse us of playing without passion. Christ, we're talking about people representing their country here. No passion? Believe me, we're passionate. This is a pressure match for both sides, and the only way to get through it is to turn in a team performance. I can't worry about Andy Robinson and what might happen to him if we lose. The only way I can be of any use to Andy is to concentrate on me, on playing my own role to the best of my ability. That's my reading of it."

Today's little set-to with the rugby nation responsible for putting the "pug" in pugnacious will sorely test White's physical reserves, even if modern-day Boks do not scrummage as heavily as they once did. The big Devonian is 33 now and needs careful management, especially with the influential Matt Stevens of Bath on the long-term injury roster. Yet he has played a full 80 minutes in each of his last three games - two internationals and a must-win Heineken Cup match for Leicester in Cardiff. He can expect to be replaced by the resurgent Phil Vickery at some point this afternoon, but even so...

"Are you suggesting I'm old?" he asked. It was not the most comfortable of moments. Then came the wolfish smile, reminiscent of the one he famously flashed in the direction of Gary Powell as the Cardiff Blues prop left the field in disgrace after butting George Chuter, the England hooker, during that European match at the Millennium Stadium. "You're right, I'm not the youngest," he conceded. "And of course, I have to look after myself. Leicester have been very good at ensuring I don't do too much; as a result, I've felt pretty good in recent weeks, despite the intensity ofthe rugby. I'm certainly relishing this game with South Africa. I think the first scrum will be very interesting."

As interesting as last week's first scrum against the Pumas, which England got horribly wrong? "We've had a good look at that and we know it's something we have to address," he replied. "The first scrum against New Zealand wasn't too brilliant, either. There again, there were times in that game when we looked like grabbing them by the balls. We're a little in and out with our scrummaging, which is a sign of the heat we're under to get a result. We've lost a lot of matches, so we're even more desperate than usual to get things right on the day. That brings its own kind of pressure, so it's important we find a way of dealing with it. Quickly.

"Mind you, it doesn't help massively when a referee says one thing about the scrummaging before a game and then does something entirely different when you're out there on the field. We had it before the All Blacks match, and it made life even more difficult than it was already. Referees have always been inconsistent at scrum-time, but it's happening every week now, to the extent that people lose concentration. If one or two blokes switch off, you're in a heap of trouble.

"It's one of the things I admire about the New Zealanders: they never switch off, even if they're under the hammer. It's no good moaning that they cheat on the engagement, with all that threequarter crouch and rolling hit stuff. Of course they cheat, but they get away with it and fair play to them. If we could cheat as well as them, we'd do it too."

It takes some believing, given the presence of White and the equally substantial Andrew Sheridan in the propping positions, but England's front row will be outweighed this afternoon, by something in the region of two and a half stones. The Boks also have greater assets in the avoirdupois department at lock, and are considerably heavier in the back row. They could easily tire, especially as they are operating at the fag end of the southern hemisphere season, but as the most experienced prop on either side pointed out, possession of the ball is at least nine-tenths of rugby law, and probably more. Someone has to go and get it. Then, and only then, can the Charlie Hodgsons of this world start playing.

Many moons ago, as he neared the conclusion of a traditional West Country rugby upbringing, White appeared in the same club side as his dear old dad. As one of England's father figures today, he carries more responsibility than at any time in his grunting, groaning, piano-shifting career.

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