AFTER a six month courtship, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend finally popped the question last month – and Ben White immediately said: Yes!
Given that the 23-year-old scrum-half from Stoke-on-Trent played for England at under-17, under-18 and under-20 levels (captaining the side at the oldest of those age-bands) and in a non-cap international for the senior side against the Barbarians back in 2019, it wasn’t a straight-forward decision – but he insists that he was in no doubt that he was ready to commit to the homeland of his Edinburgh-born grandfather.
“When I was younger – under-14s and under-15s – I did Scottish Exiles with Rob Brierley down at Mount St Mary’s so I’ve always known I’ve had that Scottish connection if I wanted to try and go down that route,” he explained. “Gregor had been in touch with me over the last six months and we’d had Zoom calls, so I knew it was an option and that they were watching me.
“That was incredibly exciting and an honour just to get a call from Gregor to even potentially be involved, and to then get the call to say I’d be in the squad – I couldn’t quite believe it.
“When I got that phone call from Gregor, he was like: ‘You can have 24-48 hours to think about it’. I said: ‘I don’t need more than two seconds, mate, yes please!’ It was amazing. I do have to pinch myself sometimes. I’m very proud to be here.”
White became the youngest player to play a Premiership match for Leicester Tigers when he made his debut against Harlequins in October 2015, aged just 17 years and 151 days, but his career began to stall after that England match against the Barbarians two and a half years ago.
He struggled against Ben Youngs (who was England’s starting No 9 on Saturday), Premiership record appearance holder Richard Wigglesworth (who joined the club from Saracens during the 2020 close season) and up-and-coming youngster Jack van Poortvliet to command game time at Leicester, being restricted to nine appearances and just two starts for the club last season.
A switch to London Irish ahead of this season has re-invigorated White. He has been mainly deployed off the bench but Townsend saw enough to be convinced that he could do a job for Scotland, and the player didn’t have to wait long for vindication of that decision to switch national allegiances.
Having been named on the bench as the only uncapped player in the match-day squad for Saturday’s match, White’s big moment cam earlier than anticipated when Price clashed heads with Sam Simmonds and needed to go off for assessment with barely 10 minutes played.
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His third touch in international rugby was to fire quick line-out ball infield for Sam Johnson to hit-up. His fourth touch was to send that fast ruck possession back the way it had come. And his fifth touch was to finish off the move by collecting an inside pass from Darcy Graham and streaking home for an excellent try which typified the clinical intelligence of the home side on one of the great days for Scottish Rugby.
“I just knew when I passed it to Hoggy that we might be on here and then Darcy cut a class line and I was just sprinting as fast as I could to make sure that I was with him,” he recalled. “You can run that line 50 times a year and not get it, but luckily Darcy’s footwork was amazing, and he put the pass on the money. The feeling … I mean words can’t describe it or do it justice, it was amazing.”
Five minutes later, White was on his way back to the touchline with Price cleared to return to the fray. “I walked off and said to one of the lads: ‘That was the best 10 minutes of my life!’ If anything, getting on like that was good as it took away the nerves and angst of maybe waiting until the last 20 minutes.”
White’s involvement wasn’t quite over yet, because he was brought back on as a tactical replacement for the final 16 minutes, immediately after Marcus Smith had put the visitors 17-10 ahead, and just before that sweeping passage of play which led to Scotland’s momentum-shifting, match-squaring penalty try, which was soon followed by the Finn Russell’s penalty which sealed the win.
“It was an incredible experience – I don’t think words can do it justice,” the new cap reflected. “But it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not backed up with a result the following week [against Wales]. Our aim now is to push on and try to get a win in the Principality.”