Julian White: White's mastery of the dark arts faces the ultimate test

The fearsome Tigers tight-head is relishing the challenge presented by tomorrow's European semi-final. Chris Hewett reports
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It is 18 months, give or take a few days, since Julian White, the most destructive scrummager in world rugby when he has a touch of the devil and a whiff of sulphur about him, fired a fusillade of blanks at the Samoans during a World Cup pool game in Melbourne and had his evening's activity curtailed by Clive Woodward, whose subsequent knighthood might never have been bestowed upon him had the Pacific islanders - international union's equivalent of a wet paper bag in set-piece terms - continued to embarrass the England pack for a few more minutes.

Needless to say, White does not appreciate being reminded of his bewildering flirtation with sporting pacifism that night - not simply because the performance itself besmirched his reputation as one of the "guv'nors" of the front-row union, but because the mere mention of it reminds him of the three and a half weeks of emptiness he experienced as a consequence. Phil Vickery, the Gloucester prop who not only replaced him but contributed the all-important try, led England in their next game against Uruguay and consigned his fellow West Countryman to the periphery of red-rose life for the rest of the tournament. To White, that marginalisation was worse than death by a thousand cuts.

"Of course I felt hollow," he said this week. "I have my winner's medal, and it will always be a treasured possession. But it would have meant more to me had I been involved in the big games, or done myself justice in the games I played. You want to be a part of things, not a bystander. You can have the best seat in the stadium, your team-mates might be winning and everything may seem pretty good on the surface, but in the end, it means nothing in the sense of personal fulfilment. It was sheer bloody frustration, to be honest with you. There again, it could have been worse. I could easily have been in Graham Rowntree's shoes and been left out of the squad altogether. That must have been terrible for the poor bloke. All that work for nothing."

Tomorrow, when White and Rowntree take the field together for Leicester's fourth Heineken Cup semi-final in the course of seven European campaigns, they will be anything but peripheral to the Leicester cause. Toulouse are in town, and in common with all the teams at the business end of the game in France, they enjoy a scrum. Why wouldn't they? With props like Omar Hassan, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Nicolae Dragos Dima and the sinister Patrice Collazo on their professional staff, they tend to win more wars than they lose. If the Tigers are to make the final at Murrayfield on 22 May, Toulouse's hard men will have to be softened up a little.

Rowntree may be a tough cookie - a prop does not win 52 caps for his country by perfecting the art of turning the other cheek - but he is not renowned for his overt aggression. "I'm trying to avoid thinking about the Toulouse game," he said after training on Thursday, "because if I spend all my time chewing it over, I'll scare myself to death. I'm nervous enough as it is."

White, at 31 the younger man by a little over two years, is very definitely known for his belligerence, and shows precisely no potential for being scared by anything. Yet if Rowntree's rugby has blossomed into full flower over the last couple of years, White has yet to reveal what Neville Cardus liked to call "the full man himself".

There are three reasons for this. To begin with, he has never settled anywhere for long. Born in Plymouth, he learned much of his trade in New Zealand, where he played club rugby for Dannevirke RSC, provincial rugby for Hawke's Bay and, uniquely for an Englishman at the time, Super 12 rugby for the Canterbury Crusaders. This should have guaranteed him star billing back home, but he bummed around with Bridgend for a while before surfacing at Saracens. He then agreed a deal with Bristol, from which he promptly attempted to extricate himself when neighbouring Bath showed an interest. After being forced to honour his commitment, he spent a so-so season at the Memorial Ground before joining a mass exodus from the financially crippled club and moving to Leicester.

Secondly, he has the reputation for going AWOL in important matches. Not all important matches, by any means, as he demonstrated by reducing the formidable Springbok loose-head specialist Os du Randt to his component parts at Twickenham in November, but enough to leave his critics wondering whether the Samoan experience might have betrayed a weakness in his psychological make-up. And third? An unfortunate mélange of injury and suspension has hampered his progress. White has had his share of both forms of enforced inactivity, and his regular absences have left his 28-cap Test career looking more than a little piecemeal.

He has cleaned up his act on the skullduggery front of late. No one calls him a pansy or clips him around the ear and gets away with it, of course - when his old England colleague Mark Regan set about him at the start of a recent Premiership game at Leeds, White responded in time-honoured fashion and was sent straight to the sin-bin without passing "Go" - but by and large, he now keeps his dark side where it belongs, hidden away in the shadows. Injuries cannot be controlled, though. Back in February, he hurt his neck towards the end of the Wales-England game in Cardiff and missed four-fifths of the Six Nations Championship as a result. Late last month, he suffered more problems in the same area during scrummaging practice ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter-final with Leinster in Dublin. Sure enough, he missed that game too.

"Different injuries, same effect," he said. "The knock I took in the Wales game wasn't down to scrummaging; it happened when I made a tackle and put my head in the wrong position. This tackling business is overrated, I can tell you. The business before the Leinster match was really unfortunate. Often, scrum practice is harder and more fiery than the real thing - it's not refereed, for a start - and with every front-row forward at every club having an ego and a point to prove, the training field can be the angriest place of all. Preparation work at Leicester is bloody hard anyway, and the scrummaging can get really messy. On that occasion, it was a full-on session, every man for himself, and I was the one who got hurt.

"Both times, I completely lost the strength in my left arm. Obviously, the first incident was worse than the second, in that it kept me out for several weeks. But in a way, the second was the more annoying. I'd kept myself fit in the gym, I was as fresh as could be and I couldn't wait for the Leinster game. To be forced out of that at the last minute was no fun at all. To be sat there in my suit at Lansdowne Road, a pint of Guinness in one hand and a Leicester flag in the other, watching the blokes play out of their skins... it's no good, is it?"

But what about the attitude problem, assuming there is one? "If you're asking me whether I switch off occasionally, you may be right," he agreed. "I certainly think I did in the past, and that game against Samoa may have been an example, although I was carrying an injury during the tournament and my preparation hadn't been the best. There were issues with my move to Bristol, too, and without going back over old ground, I wasn't always in the best frame of mind during my time there. I think I'm different now, though. You can't mess around at a club like Leicester, because you'll get found out before you know it.

"The decision to come here was one of the easiest I've ever had to make. I wanted to join a club where I could see the prospect of success, even if that success wasn't guaranteed. The whole point was to go somewhere that offered me the chance to win things. I love everything about it here - the squad, the style of rugby, the whole outlook on life - and I don't suppose I've ever been part of a better pack of forwards. People ask me if the Leicester pack at full tilt, with Martin Johnson and Neil Back and all the rest, is stronger than a top international unit. To be honest, I don't know. But if we're ever going to find out, it will be this weekend. There aren't many non-internationals in that Toulouse team."

All things considered, this is the weekend when the Midlanders need their big Devonian to stand tall and be counted, to return to the heights he scaled against the touring South Africans five months ago and lay down a marker for the big occasions to come: the Premiership finale, followed by a return to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions, where he will again be accompanied by Rowntree.

"I love playing against the French, because they are so passionate about their scrummaging," he said, almost masochistically. "They enjoy it because they're good at it; they're good at it because they enjoy it. It's an honour thing with them, so if we can just work them over a little in the front row, it will eat into their spirit and they'll start grizzling at each other. That's the plan, but it won't be easy. There are certain games that tell you precisely where you stand in the great scheme of things, and this is one of them."