Interview: Scotland’s Jason White on dealing with the boo boys in Italy, his Calcutta Cup hat-trick, and showing his PE students his best tackles on YouTube
No, I say, and show him the cutting which popped up in my exhaustive research. It’s from our sister paper, Edinburgh’s Evening News, and recounts how a security guard was up for a bravery medal for disarming a knife-wielding shoplifter at a mall in the capital with a “powerful rugby tackle”.
The hero, Simon Smith, said of his combatant: “We had a wee altercation where he basically tried to stab me a few times. Without going into detail I managed to numb a nerve in his arm but then he bolted. Luckily a member of the public tripped him up. I’m not really built for running but that bought me the few seconds I needed to put in a tackle that Jason White would have been proud of. The rest of the security team helped me disarm him and we waited for the police.”
“Wow,” says White, “that’s quite something.” An honour? He thinks for a moment. “I suppose so.” Smith knew to namecheck White from having been a prop with the Liberton club in Edinburgh but really any Scot with an interest in sport should have been aware of our man’s bone-juddering blocks in a career which began 20 years ago with a Calcutta Cup victory over England and ran until 2009.
At 6ft 5ins Jason Phillip Randall White was never going to be front row but growing up in Aberdeen and apparently hewn from granite he was the perfect fit for flanker. In football, they say of rugged midfielders that they “like a tackle” but this is mimsy-ish stuff compared with how White used to earn a living so he could buy more red meat.
Jim Telfer, his first Scotland coach, hailed him as “pound for pound the hardest tackler I ever worked with”. At Sale Sharks they said of him: “We have guys who make more tackles in a game but Jason is our sack man. He puts in half-a-dozen big ones every time and they all count.” White adds: At Clermont Auvergne they called me ‘Le Platane’ – strong tree.” All of this would look good on the tombstone, but with him in close proximity, don’t bet on the memorial staying upright.
We’re in North Berwick, East Lothian, where White, 41, has settled with his psychologist wife Beverley and their three daughters – a fourth child is expected in a fortnight – after that roving rugby career taking in Glasgow, England and France. “I think I could live just about anywhere,” he says. “But one weekend we came down here for an ice cream and thought: ‘This’ll do.’”
He’s lost some of his fighting weight – recorded at 17st – but still fills door frames and indeed high-ceilinged kitchen-cum-dining rooms like the one where we’re discussing his greatest hits. “I think my height comes from my grandfather, a butcher in Melrose who got called Lofty,” he explains. In his youth White played football before switching to rugby and as an uncompromising centre-half was known as “The Brick Wall”. These days, though, he’s mostly called “Sir”.
He teaches PE at Loretto School back up the coast in Musselburgh where the fourth-formers have a favourite end-of-day request: “They like to watch my tackles on YouTube. I’ll show them as a reward.”
White began with a bang, a big bang, and in his 2000 debut a Man of the Match performance for what would be the first of three victories achieved over the Auld Enemy, no mean feat in his era.
The Loretto lads must also enjoy the manner in which their teacher downs Joe Worsley in the ’06 Calcutta Cup, cements Ireland’s Denis Hickey and, playing for Clermont, neutralises Saracens’ Chris Wyles. In each case, the victims are stopped dead and thrown to the turf. These are beefy guys but suddenly they resemble naive young antelopes who’ve wandered into a dangerous corner of the veldt where they’re flattened by the thick paws of a ravenous lion.
White once said: “I’d love to score tries – I don’t know much about it but it looks like fun.” That sounds like regret over his nominated role in life; did he get any enjoyment out of tackling? “Oh sure. I remember one of my first games for Aberdeen Wanderers Under-14s against Mackie [Academy] when I got a good one on this fellow and broke a few of his ribs. Then at Under-18s I broke a guy’s sternum.” Ouch – that sounds like he enjoyed tackling rather too much? “Well, I’m a very mild-mannered, compassionate and empathetic person now, a family man in a house full of women, but when I played rugby I well understood that it’s a contact sport and I loved getting stuck in.
“For me tackling was all about timing. That was my biggest natural ability. I believe that if you have a strength you should make it a super-strength so I worked on my tackling a lot.” If this is not a contradiction in terms he finessed the brutality. “South Pacificers like to come in with big swinging arms but for me it was shoulder contact and knowing the exact moment to transfer the power to the legs.” Surely he didn’t get the timing right always – any war wounds flaring up in retirement? “No, thankfully. Hitting some of those big lumps in the opposition there was the risk of a stinger but eight times out of ten if I won the physical contest I was okay.”
I’ve looked up White for a chat because as well as those 77 caps, the three Calcutta Cups, captaining Scotland at a World Cup and turning out for the Lions, he lost twice in Rome, venue for the current Scotland today and what’s being billed as a wooden spoon decider.
The second occasion was 2008, 23-20 to Italy, only a week after White’s final success against England, which sounds very Scotland. A second-half substitute, he apologises for having blotted out any memory of that encounter but the 2004 loss, 20-14 that time, is more vivid.
“I remember that one because it was just about the first time Scotland fans took out their frustration on the team. After the game some of them jeered us and flicked V-signs.” This sounds reminiscent of Argentina 1978 for Scotland’s World Cup footballing flops. “I was with Mossy [Chris Paterson] and we were pretty shocked,” adds White, who tries to rationalise the supporters’ anger. “We lost and they were upset. But for the fans the team always go out and try their best and we hope they understand that.”
Maybe there’s such a thing as Scottish entitlement, I say. Other nations have more form in this area – whoever could I mean? – but perhaps we thought these relative newbies to the Six Nations would just roll over. “Italy on their day are very capable and they play a type of game which can cause us problems. They’re no mugs. I get that the fans are passionate. They’ll have spent a chunk of money on that trip. Drink might have played a part in the protest but it was sad that it happened.”
We talk about the drip-drip of footballing bad habits into rugby since it went pro. “Talking back to referees,” says White, “I don’t like that.” At Loretto, White referees matches – the school’s keenest rivalry is with Fettes College – and even these games will require the official to re-emphasise who’s boss. “These matches can be really, really hard for me. Generally the boys are good but they will question things. The parents on the touchlines are the bigger problem. They have a vested interest and sometimes they overstep the mark.”
Before this Six Nations began you could read how the Stuart Hogg/Finn Russell Scotland were so much slicker and quicker than the teams which went before them, some of them having “bored” Murrayfield. “I hope we didn’t bore anyone,” says White, who stands up for the Telfer/Ian McGeechan era, also the Frank Hadden one, but accepts this is more difficult to do when recalling Matt Williams, the man in charge in Rome when the side had to run the gauntlet.
“That wasn’t a hugely productive time and we weren’t the happiest of camps. The main reason was the lack of Scottish voices within Matt’s coaching group. There were too many references to places these guys had been before and just too many foreign voices. By all accounts Vern Cotter, another outsider, did a great job of trying to understand Scotland, our values and what we believe in.”
White’s dark blues, though, didn’t have a Hogg or more crucially a Russell. “Parksy [Dan Parks] was our ten and did well for us although defence wasn’t his strong point. Parksy, Gogsy [Gordon] Ross – they were great players but, absolutely no malice at all, they weren’t world-class. As Creamy [Telfer] once put it so eloquently: ‘You can only pee with the cock you’ve got.’”
Of course Hogg has yet to dazzle in this campaign and Russell is nowhere to be seen. “The situation with Finn is very sad,” says White of the stand-off’s bust-up with head coach Gregor Townsend. “It’s unfortunate this has been played out in public but the bigger disappointment is that the team, and the fans, are being denied one of our few world-class players. There are two sides to every story and we only know bits. I’m torn about it, to be honest. I don’t know Finn but I respect him and if these are his views and he’s sticking to them, fair enough. But I didn’t think that photo of him when he spoke to the press [Russell with his arms across the back of a sofa, smiling] portrayed him in a good light. Presumably he knew how inflammatory his views were going to be. Nobody has won here and as I say the biggest losers are Scotland and the supporters. If he’s played his last-ever game for us – and I hope that’s not the case – then what a shame and what a waste.”
White’s last game for his final club, Clermont, ended with chants of “Jason, Jason” in French accents. At Sale he won the Premiership while in the Massif Central, in the rugby-mad town which gave the world the Michelin tyre, he helped bring home the Championship for the first time in the club’s history. “We loved France, embraced it, even though we got burgled. Our two youngest were born there and the fruit tasted so much fresher. The stadium was an 18,000 sellout every game. In my three years we only lost one home match and right after it the team went 77 unbeaten, a European record.”
And the Scotland experience? “Looking out over Murrayfield the other week, it seemed like yesterday that I was on the pitch and also a lifetime ago. Did I actually play there? That hamster-wheel, once you’re spinning on it, goes so quickly and a career can be over in a flash. That’s something I hope Finn realises.
“It’s hard in the moment to pause and reflect and appreciate what you’re doing: playing rugby for Scotland, something I’d dreamed about back in Aberdeen. I wish I’d been more relaxed and I might have been able to do that, but I was strict with myself regarding alcohol and diet because I wanted to be the best I could be.”
Earlier in the chat – disappointingly – White had said he could remember very little about that debut, Scotland’s first win over England in ten years, denying them a Grand Slam in a Murrayfield monsoon. In truth, though, the memory-box is working just fine.
“Geech [McGeechan] slipped a little card under my hotel door informing me I was playing and then told the team meeting I would light up the game with my tackling, which was great but a lot to live up to. On the morning of the match I was excited and nervous and proud and scared. But when we ran out to Highland Cathedral, tickertape everywhere, I was fine.
“I tried to find some internal motivation. As I was singing Flower of Scotland I thought about who I was playing for: Peterculter, where I was born, Aberdeen Wanderers, Mum and Dad sitting in the stand – oh, and the rest of the nation. Then I thought about how I was about to push my body to its limit and willingly inflict some harm on myself!”
The game itself was a blur, a sodden blur, while long into the night the celebrations were so delirious that the rest of the team forgot all about White’s initiation as a new cap – downing 14 drinks of his choice. “I was glad that I could slip away quietly and catch up with my flatmates,” he laughs. But would the ceremony have ruffled the immovable object? Unlikely…