Even six weeks ago you would have had long odds on Ben White being one of the most pivotal players in the Six Nations Championship. Or, indeed, on Scotland beating all the other “home nations” in the same campaign. Aside from their grand slam seasons of 1984 and 1990, the last Scottish standalone triple crown was tucked away before the second world war.
In 1938, as it happens, Scotland had a not dissimilar gameplan to 2023. A deliberately fast-paced game, designed around their brilliant fly-half, Wilson Shaw, worked a treat 85 years ago and history may be repeating itself. With White at scrum-half cranking up the tempo and his half-back partner, Finn Russell, exploiting that momentum, France could easily have lost in Paris last month.
To anyone who has seen London Irish play this season, it is simply confirmation of what they have been enjoying for a while. The 24-year-old’s buzzing energy and alertness has helped to propel them towards the playoff places and the attack-happy Exiles are arguably the most watchable team in the Premiership. If they and Scotland continue to run free it will not be a coincidence.
It could already be argued that White has been the tournament’s most influential nine, even before the head-first lunge in his direction by France’s Mohamed Haouas in Paris. Supplying Russell with red-hot quick ball remains his primary job, but, as his smart opportunist try at Twickenham underlined, he has also threatened around the fringes. Not bad for a player who before last month had never started a Six Nations game and was surplus to requirements at Leicester less than two years ago.
His exit from Welford Road, with two years left on his contract, was a sliding doors moment in many respects. The Tigers’ then coach, Steve Borthwick, already had Ben Youngs, White and a young Jack van Poortvliet, but opted to hire the experienced Richard Wigglesworth as well.
“It’s a professional sport, someone had to take a hit and Steve saw that to be me,” says White. “If anything, it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I learned a lot from those times, but playing for Irish is what has kicked me on.”
Above all, the Stoke-born White, a former England U20 captain who, at 17, became Leicester’s youngest Premiership player in 2017, is now free to play the kind of rugby he prefers for club and country. “I love playing fast. At this level there is obviously a balance, but when it’s fast and exciting that’s how you want to play.”
No wonder his face brightens, therefore, when Russell’s name crops up. “He’s very good to play with. In my eyes he’s probably the best fly-half in the world at the minute. The quicker I give him the ball, the faster Scotland play and the better we look.
“If you play fast as a scrum-half and keep moving the ball well you’ll naturally bring other players into the game and space will open up for you. One of the reasons Ireland and Leinster have been so successful is the speed at which Jamison Gibson-Park plays. When you strike the balance between playing fast, being physical and using your kicking game, it’s a dangerous combination.”
It helps, fitness-wise, that White’s girlfriend, the British tennis player Jodie Burrage, is also a professional athlete. Burrage, ranked 133rd in the world, is good mates with, among others, Emma Raducanu. “Emma and Jodie are really good friends and keep in touch a lot, but they’re always on the road. Jodie’s been in Indian Wells this week and she’s in Miami next week. There’s a lot of FaceTime.”
According to White, though, Burrage’s most competitive duels often take place at the table tennis table. “I’ve got her at times, though she won’t like me saying that. And she’ll say I’m lying. I’d say we’re both pretty competitive. We definitely both push each other.
“Sometimes we do get home, sit on the sofa and say we’re knackered. But it’s great having Jodes doing what she’s doing. I want to support her with her goals and she’s the same with me. It’s nice to have someone who understands the challenge and who you can talk to about it.”
White is studying interior design, while his father works as a tax director in the Bet365 organisation. The 5ft 11in scrum-half is qualified for Scotland via his parental grandfather, Jim, who grew up in Edinburgh and was an engineer in Leith before moving south to become a university lecturer in Staffordshire.
If a debut Calcutta Cup try off the bench at Murrayfield last year was special, starting against the peerless Antoine Dupont last week was another personal thrill. “I want to keep pushing myself and see how far I can go. It’s a funny thing. You believe in yourself that you’re ready but you don’t know until you get the opportunity.”
Increasingly, though, he seems to be a man in the right place at the right time. Ambitious, smart, fit and focused, he makes no secret of his desire to press on even further. Scotland’s failure to put France away was disappointing. “Watching it back we missed chances and probably could have won. We didn’t because we weren’t as accurate as in the first two games.”
If Ireland are beaten at Murrayfield on Sunday, though, an interesting reception will await White when he returns to club duty before London Irish’s highly anticipated St Patrick’s Party game against Northampton on 25 March.
Declan Kidney, the former Ireland head coach, kept White on the field for all but the closing moments of Sunday’s 34-19 win at Newcastle – “Declan said last week he’d try and tire me out. I think he was joking” – and an Irish grand slam would clearly go down well with many at the club.
“I’m sure they want me to do well but for Ireland to win,” says White, laughing. Whatever happens, Scotland’s fast show will be worth watching.