White the exile dreams of new horizons with Scotland

After impressing at the World Cup, the Sale flanker is relishing life in England, where he is determined to keep catching he eye of his country's new coach

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Having achieved all he felt he could with Glasgow, the Scotland back-row forward Jason White decided that a different challenge was called for. He needed to broaden his rugby education, to test club rugby south of the border, and see if the much-vaunted Zurich Premiership was all it was cracked up to be.

So White became a Shark - the Great White Shark as some way conied him. And the 6ft 5in and 18 stone, Edinburgh-born former Glasgow back row has been turning out for Sale, and with a certain amount of success. "I've settled in very well here," said White.

"Just making a move like this to a completely different rugby environment can give you a kick up the bum. You need to test yourself all the time. And coming here I felt gave me a better chance of winning something as well. I do feel I made the right decision." But there must have been a moment or two when he doubted that last statement, because when Scotland's interest in the World Cup ended, it also marked a change in management and coaching. Ian McGeechan stepped up to become the Scottish Rugby Union's Director of Rugby in succession to Jim Telfer and a new coach took over - Matt Williams.

There was something a trifle ironic in an Australia-born coach plying his trade in Scotland delivering the following edict. After including 14 uncapped players in his inaugural training squad Williams, the former Leinster, Ireland A and New South Wales coach, was reported as saying: "I firmly believe that Scotland's players must be playing in Scotland. My intention is that if a player leaves Scotland then he will be leaving the national team. Our policy of sending players to England to save costs is counter-productive. You have to ask why we are where we are with the national team and I will tell you it's because some 15 players in our squad are not here under our control and we're the only team in the world that does it."

Chilling words for White, who must have wondered momentarily where that left him. Fortunately for the talented blindside flanker, Williams is not going to play hard ball with players who are already contractually committed to playing away from home. "At present there are players under contract away from Scotland," explained the 43-year-old. "They are not going to be penalised now." But? "When they come off contract we will be asking them to come back to Scotland for the next World Cup. If [these] players do not, then home-based players will get the preference. If players leave Scotland then they have to understand that they place their position in the national team under jeopardy. We have to have a hard, tough line. There is going to be pain if people go. But I'm very confident that will not be the case and I don't say that with an air of bravado. My experience in Australia and Ireland is that players want to play for their country."

White at least knows where he stands, and with two and a half years still to run he can relax and glean as much benefit as he possibly can from his experiences in England. "What Matt Williams has said about playing in Scotland has not put any pressure on me because he is going to let those of us playing outside Scotland see out our contracts."

And by the sound of things it is going to be an enjoyable sojourn at Sale. Already White has taken part in a cracker of a Heineken European Cup tie against Cardiff, a match that many aficionados claim was one of the best club games for some time. "It was brilliant. The atmosphere at Edgeley Road was fantastic. Cardiff played really well. It was a sell-out," said White.

In light of the success of so many Celtic teams in Europe this season optimism is high that the other "gap" in the game, between the so-called "Celtic fringe" and France and England has also narrowed. In White's opinion European rugby has made a big difference. "It is giving British sides a different perspective on how to play the game,' White said. "Refereeing is different; away games really are that. You have a pragmatic British way of playing coming up against fiery Irish play or French flair. You are learning so much as a player."

In particular he feels that the Heineken Cup has helped Wales, Scotland and Ireland and that bodes well for the "Celtic fringe" in this year's Six Nations. "Leinster have been one of the top teams in the tournament for a while and Munster are doing really well this year. The Welsh regional sides have also been doing well. It can only be good for northern hemisphere rugby at the top level.

"I think this year's Six Nations is going to be one of the most important. Especially for the rugby public, who had seen five of the countries make it to the quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup." That percentage indicated perhaps that the perceived gap between northern and southern hemispheres had closed. White agrees. "The gap has disappeared," he said. "Nowadays when northern hemisphere countries take on New Zealand, Australia and South Africa the prospect does not inspire apprehension. We have caught up with them."

That public perception is clearly going to turn into pressure with individual sets of fans expecting a great deal from their own team. White added: "Scotland want to do really well. We want to win the championship, but we have new personnel, a new coaching team, it is going to be hard for everybody. Matt Williams wants us to play new systems and we also have a lot of youngsters who have little or no experience of rugby at Test level, so it is going to be very tough."

White, whose ball-carrying impressed opposition and team-mates alike in the World Cup, earned the first of his 32 caps against England at Murrayfield in 2000, a match the Scots so famously won 19-13 to thwart the Auld Enemy's bid for a Grand Slam. "That first cap against England was a great moment for me," he recalled. "I feel very proud to play for my country. It is a special thing. You want to win so badly. But you have to have the desire to win."

There is little doubt that the desire is there. When you consider that White has won half a dozen or so of his caps in the second row, it underlines his versatility, his thirst for knowledge and his hunger for success. With the likes of White around, the Celtic fringe is likely to remain an interesting place.

SCOTLAND FACTFILE

Coach: Matt Williams

Captain: Chris Paterson

Director of rugby: Ian McGeechan

Assistant coaches: Todd Blackadder, George Graham, Andy Nicol

Fitness coach: Marty Hulme

Ground: Murrayfield (capacity: 67,500)

Anthem: Flower of Scotland

Triple crown wins: 10 (1891, 95, 1901, 03, 07, 25, 33, 38, 84, 90)

Grand Slam wins: 3 (1925, 84, 90)

Biggest win: Scotland 38 Ireland 10 (1997)

Biggest defeat: Scotland 3 England 43 (2001)

SCOTTISH MEMORY - DAVID SOLE (1986-92, 44 caps)

Now that they've had more than a decade to get over it even Englishmen will agree with David Sole about Scotland's finest Five Nations hour.

"Well, it doesn't take too long to think about that one," smiles Sole, a little greyer at the temples, still softly spoken, and still with a steely glint in his eye at the thought of it. "16th March, 1990," he says. Scotland against England, for the Grand Slam.

A young Will Carling brings new England, a mix of some of the toughest forwards ever to tread the turf and a gang of strutting three-quarters marshalled around Carling and his centre partner Jerry Guscott. England run out on to the sun-touched pitch. And then Scotland come out. "The walk was my idea," says Sole, who led the home side out on a slow, stalking march of eye-bulging intensity that unnerved the English from the start. "We'd kind of been written off, so I wanted to make some sort of statement, to say that we were going for exactly the same thing as the fancied English were. "I got a few of the guys together on the Wednesday night and said 'look, I think we should walk out'. Some were for it - they even wanted to get a piper to lead us out. I thought that was a bit extreme. But we agreed it would be a good idea, and I told the rest of the guys about it about a minute before we walked out."

Stoked up to a near frenzy, Scotland proceeded to trample on England's hopes of a first Grand Slam in 10 years. "It was an atmosphere at a sporting occasion I've never witnessed before or since," Sole says. "The crowd was totally involved and absorbed. It spilled out into the Edinburgh night, and the whole place was buzzing." Scotland won 13-7, coming back from a Guscott try to score one of their own - through Tony Stanger. It was, as the Five Nations was always capable of being, incredible.

Martin Pengelly

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