Warrior White dreams of leading Scotland into battle once again

WHEN Jason White captained Scotland the formidable character from the granite city employed a pretty explosive style, so there is something fitting in the player's move to a city in France with its own chain of volcanoes.

If Colin Hendry evoked 'Braveheart' headlines when he led the Scotland football team, the less hirsute White, who will be looking for his 75th cap this autumn, was the living embodiment of the mythical status supporters love to bestow on its sporting heroes. The pair shared a level of commitment on the field that played to the warrior spirit Scots like to see in themselves.

There is no surprise now then, 18 months on from when the honour of skippering the Scotland rugby team was passed to Mike Blair, aged 31 and ensconced in a new chapter of his life across the Channel, that White responds swiftly to the question of whether captaining his country still figures in his ambitions.

"Of course," he says, his calm, thoughtful delivery rising a few decibels. "I would love to captain Scotland again. To do it once was a huge honour and it would be the same to lead my country in the future. I'm not expecting to. At the moment I think it is right for the captain to come from a Scottish team and Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter are obvious choices there. It's also important for the squad to develop a stable of leaders, but if Andy Robinson was to ask me I would certainly not turn it down."

That is pretty clear then. White may have taken the offer of serious French dough, quit English rugby for a sunnier life in Clermont-Ferrand, in France's Massif Central, but he is not finished yet. In fact, the move he explains was motivated more by his desires in rugby than those of a player with one eye on security for his young family; wife Bev and nine-month-old daughter Annabelle, as he heads into the twilight of a playing career.

"I loved the six years I had in Manchester – we built up a good network of friends and Bev had a good job," he says, "so the easy decision, the family decision, would have been to sign the new contract and stay.

"If I stayed at Sale I still would have kicked on, because that is my nature and I wouldn't have seen that as an easy route either really, because the Premiership's a tough league, but by moving to Clermont-Auvergne I've given myself a new challenge that people need in life, certainly in sport.

"I need to prove myself to new coaches and players at Clermont, to the fans, who are pretty passionate – our stadium is a 16,000 sell-out for every game – and it's also good timing with Andy taking over as Scotland coach because that's part of the proving yourself again now.

"It has been hard for Bev, moving to a new house in a new country, and getting settled, but we've been getting two hours of French lessons a week – I took German rather than French at school, which was a bad move – and the neighbours are fantastic around here. I don't know if it's the esteem the rugby team is held in or because we're making an effort to get to know people and the city, but people have been fantastic; very welcoming."

Asking for du pain or un kilo des pommes is one thing, but what best settles players abroad is the same as newcomers to any team – the respect of their teammates. That, one senses, is where the path to White's new energy and excitement has been laid. By all accounts, the blindside flanker has been in fine form this season, smashing into tackles, carrying the ball well and generally looking as spritely as ever. "That is a huge part of it," he admits. "Gaining the respect of the players is massive and makes a huge difference.

"Because Clermont reached the French final well into May and Sale's season finished in April, I had 12 weeks off this summer, which is unheard of. Clermont gave me a training programme so I was in good shape when the rest of the squad came back in for pre-season and the games have gone pretty well so far. I have started four out of six and am starting against Perpignan this weekend, which will add up to more rugby week-on-week than I've probably had in the past two years.

"And that is also a big thing. It's hard to reach your best form when you're in and out of teams. The best season I've had was the 2005-6 year when Sale won the Guinness Premiership and Scotland had a pretty good year, too, and I was playing regularly, but, since then, it has been a struggle just clearing injuries and getting a good run at the game.

"The main reason I chose Clermont was because I was very impressed with their professionalism and ambition, right from the kit man up to the president, and the first few months have been what I hoped they would be. I have come to a very good club and at a good time for me. They are one of the most consistent sides in France, reaching the final in the last three years, and know they have the squad to win it.

"Also, the fact that Julien Bonnaire (France flanker] was still recovering from an adductor injury at the start of the season meant I got in at the start and was able to play and start earning some respect. Now he's back and I'm still in, and that's a big boost for the confidence, too."

White grew up in Peterculter and attended Cults Academy, before taking up a final year scholarship at George Watson's College in Edinburgh as his dominating rugby style began to win admirers across the country. He progressed through the age group ranks as 'a big lad', someone marked out at 6ft 5in and bulky as something different in a country of relatively small people.

Even before legendary Scotland coach Jim Telfer uttered the immortal phrase "pound for pound, Jason White is the hardest tackler I've ever worked with", nearly a decade ago, which will probably end up on White's gravestone so prolific is its use since, White was a player guaranteed to make an impact.

He also had an appetite for challenges, moving from Glasgow to Sale to put himself among the big boys, and growing into a crucial physical cog in the wheels of club and country. And that 2005-6 season was something special.

Not only did he emerge as one of Scotland's most respected captains of his generation, but he won plaudits in the notoriously haughty environs of English rugby. He took over as Scotland captain against Argentina in November, 2005, and then led them to victories over France and England at Murrayfield – the latter coming on the occasion of his 50th cap – and Italy in Rome.

In the 2006 Calcutta Cup match, in which he was voted the 'Man of the Match', he killed a late English attack stone dead with a trademark hit on Wasps flanker Joe Worsley as Scotland hung on for an 18-12 win, and White similarly forced the penalty from which Chris Paterson secured the 13-10 victory over Italy with a ferocious tackle on Andrea Lo Cicero. The skipper was voted The Famous Grouse Scotland Player of the Season by the Scottish media, the first time a Scotland captain had won the award in its ten years, picked up the Scottish Players' Player of the Year and was then revealed as the Guinness Premiership Players' Player of the Year. His old club Aberdeen Wanderers RFC even renamed their pavilion in his honour that spring.

And then it crashed around his ears in an international against Romania at Murrayfield; he turned quickly, his studs remained fixed in the turf, and his knee ruptured. Little more than a decade ago it was an injury that finished a player's career, but modern technology and physio work has made ripped cruciate ligaments fixable.

But it takes time. White had nine months until the 2007 Rugby Word Cup and he needed every minute of it simply to recover and start taking contact again. He was never going to be at his best with two games under his belt before the World Cup kicked off, and much of 2007-8 became a battle for match fitness and timing.

Other injuries cropped up – the knee, a shoulder and concussion – and all the while Scottish players and supporters were urging him to rediscover his form and lead the nation, never mind the Sale camp, where silverware was becoming a more distant target. Mental frustrations were joining the physical.

What the battles, injury lay-offs and new rivalry with Gloucester's impressive Alasdair Strokosch have given White, however, is time for reflection; time to ponder whether this was it, he was as good as he was going to get, or whether there was still room for improvement. For all his assuredness, one has always sensed a mix of the canny and the slightly unsure, disbelieving Scot in White.

Relaxed at home in Clermont-Ferrand, he talks of hearing Mike Blair and Ross Ford speak of a new-found belief born of the British and Irish Lions tour, and the knowledge that they are the equal and more of some rivals across the British Isles. He was similarly emboldened by the New Zealand tour in 2005, and is excited by the current squad and new coaching team.

"I know the players at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and playing elsewhere, and they are as good as anywhere, but it's about bringing it together, getting it right as a team and making the collective strength as good, and working our backsides off.

"Wales and Warren Gatland will be desperate to get back on top in the Six Nations; Ireland will be out to defend their title; England under Martin Johnson will be intent on climbing back to the top; and I know the quality France have because I'm playing with lots of it. So no matter how talented we may be, and believe we are, there are no easy championships."

That animated talk is an indicator of White's appetite to be involved. He admits he doesn't know if he can be better than in 2005-6, but just as when he left Glasgow for Sale in 2003, he has taken another opportunity to escape a comfort zone to try and find out. Scotland needs his experience, and White in top form remains a formidable presence to rival any on the Test stage. The coach's mention of White in this week's media debrief was an indication that he is watching Clermont closely.

"Rugby is harder now, without doubt," says White, "so it's harder to stand out maybe the way I did when I first started playing. Players are all bigger and stronger than they were even just five years ago. So it makes it harder when you're reaching the 'experienced' end of your career, shall we say.

"But that's another challenge. I have a two-year contract so I'm looking at being the best I can at Clermont for those two years, to prove myself again and win things, which is realistic with the squad we have, and I would like to play in the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

"I don't expect anything. I never have. You have to earn everything you get in sport. It would be massively disappointing if I didn't play for Scotland again, but I would know that I've done everything I could to give myself the chance.

"I have made a lot of sacrifices in recent years, as all sportsmen and women have to do, worked on my diet, my rugby and my life. I've given a lot for Scotland, and I've enjoyed the benefits of that, but I have never taken it for granted.

"You do realise as you play through more league campaigns, more Heineken Cups, that that's another season gone, and how much it means, the privilege of representing Scotland. Everything right now is focused on understanding things better each day out here, and being successful in French rugby, but the ambition of playing for and captaining Scotland again is always there. Out of sight maybe, but never out of mind."