Tuesday 16 January 2018

Refusing to look too far ahead after roundabout route to the top

Late-developing Ireland prop Nathan White confounds stereotypes about Kiwi imports

Nathan White: 'The spotlight's on and people may look at you a bit more closely than others' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Nathan White: 'The spotlight's on and people may look at you a bit more closely than others' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Three things that strike you about Nathan White. He's the first Kiwi rugby player we've met who didn't come from a family steeped in the sport. He had an uncle who was handy but had to give up early through injury. His folks played squash and tennis. They did what? And that's it.

Moreover he comes from the farming heartland of Waikato on New Zealand's North Island. When you fetch up on match day at Rugby Park in Hamilton (fairly prosaic when it comes to naming their stadiums, the Kiwis) the first thing that hits you is the quality of the surface, which is pristine. And the second is the constant ringing of the cow bells. This is agricultural country, but despite spending a good deal of his youth hanging out on mates' farms it never entered his head to go down that road.

And then there is the 'take it as it comes' attitude about whether or not he ever shifts his young family back to NZ. If it happens, it happens. Maybe the way he left in the first place has taught him not to plan too far ahead.

White (34) had been a Waikato player all his career - between the province and the Chiefs franchise - but seeing the way his mate, hooker Aled de Malmanche, was let go wised him up a bit to the ways of professional sport. Nothing lasts forever.

"A lot changed in that last year at the Chiefs," he recalls. "The coaching staff found out fairly early that they weren't being kept on and then a lot of the guys I'd grown up playing with were leaving as well. We thought about it. We could stay here and finish up in Hamilton or we could go and see the world. I mean, a great opportunity to live in Dublin and play there and see what happens? There's a lot more opportunities in Europe as a rugby player. Surely we could pick something up and, lucky enough, Connacht came along fairly early on and offered a good deal."

And what did his missus say when he came home in the first place with the offer of one whole season in Leinster?

"She was really good with it. She had the same impression as me, we may as well give it a crack. We could be gone for one year or, what are we now? Five years almost."

Five years in which one of his four kids was born in Galway, and the other three sound like they were too. That kind of thing would change how you feel about a place, and maybe where you came from as well.

"Ireland's all they know," he says. "Kids are very good. They get on with it, don't they? I'm fairly well settled in Galway now. We're open to see what happens. I mean, you never know what could happen in the next week or so. If something popped up on this side of the world, we'd have a look at it, possibly take it. There's family to go back to but other than that, friends move on with lives . . . the people we've met in Galway, we've become very close to them, then you go back to people you haven't seen in six or seven years, things have changed and moved on."

Nathan White has moved on farther then he ever figured. As a kid he was aware of the Six Nations as something that popped up on the tv screen every so often, a tournament he could see was played mostly in horrible weather, but before full houses. As for Ireland, they were just part of the blur. When he left school he went into construction, laying concrete and driving diggers, before pro rugby offered him a living. It wasn't as if he was telling the lads in either business that they'd be watching him in the Six Nations before they had all called it a day.

It was Joe Schmidt who made the play for him to come to Leinster in 2011. And the same Schmidt who was desperate to get White into green for the November series in 2014. The tighthead had not long recovered from a back operation. Then his bicep tore, and that was the end of the coach's immediate plans. It would be the following summer before White would make his Ireland debut, against Scotland in a World Cup warm-up. In the interim he wouldn't have been great company.

"I was pretty down for a long time - I had three months where I couldn't play. You think about it a lot and you get down, definitely. The summer before I'd had that back operation as well and when that happens you start thinking about things. But it's probably the beauty of rugby: you've got a good support network. Guys pick you up and keep you going. You just keep trying to reach that dream of playing international rugby. It's really what's driving me: it's to play at the top level.

"I've played rugby for a long time - I've worked in other jobs but certainly in the last 10 years it's all you know. You just keep playing rugby. And maybe getting to know Brad Thorn as well, seeing how he did it at an older age? That it can be done, he performed at a high level for a long time. I guess when I got (Ireland) qualified it was that carrot of playing international rugby in a World Cup that really, really drove me on.

"Brad was at Leinster when I was there and then he was here before the World Cup, so to catch up with him for a couple of days was great. He was floating around with the coaches, doing a bit of coaching stuff. He'd just finished up then with Leicester, so to have a little chat with him . . . the smile on his face and the shape he's in? He's telling you to keep playing as long as you can!"

The slight complication in White's case is that he will always have to go the extra yard simply because of the journey he has already made to get here. Qualifiers through residency will always have that added pressure to prove themselves.

"Yeah, well there is (pressure). It's probably a little bit harder for me: the spotlight's on and people may look at you a bit more closely than others. There is that little pressure from outside, but I think the pressure from inside the camp itself is to perform and do well. That's what drives you."

It helps that he is also representing a province who for a change are enjoying a healthy representation in the Ireland squad. The win over Scarlets last weekend was massive for Connacht - both White and his opposite number today, Rob Evans, were resting up - and if White makes an impact today it will be more grist to the mill in the West. First and foremost, though, it's about clearing the cloud left by the World Cup.

"There's a little bit of unfinished business after the Argentina game," he says. "After such a big high of the France week, everyone was buzzing. . . for it to just fizzle out in the end was just very disappointing. For the guys who get to put the shirt on this weekend it's the first chance from there. Joe and everyone looked at that game in the last few weeks, where we can improve on that, what we did well and what didn't go so well. So now we get to go out finally and try and right the wrong. It's been a while, but for the players we've had the provinces to go back to. For the coaching staff they've had a few months to dwell over it. Since we've been back down here, yeah, it's been spoken about a wee bit."

And there's a fourth thing about Nathan White. Overstatement wouldn't be his thing. So if by tea time today he thinks he's gone ok, that will do fine.

Date of birth: Sept 4, 1981

Test debut: Aug 15, 2015 v Scotland at the Aviva Stadium

Test record: 8 caps, 2 starts v Wales (World Cup warm-up) and Romania (World Cup warm-up) and six appearances from the bench, against Scotland, England (both World Cup warm-ups), Italy, Canada, France, Argentina (all World Cup).

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