Interview by Tony James
Not many people can say Lawrence Dallaglio was their tea boy, but Michael ‘Buster’ White can.
“He made a lovely cuppa,” remembers the former Wasps flanker. “I got away with it for a couple of years, until he got his first England cap. I knew from the first time I saw him he was destined for great things.”
Strutting his stuff
Dallaglio joined Wasps as a little known back row player when White was strutting his stuff as one of the toughest and feistiest number sixes the game had known. Why he was never capped at senior level remains a mystery and, to many, one of rugby’s great injustices.
But he achieved just about everything else. In 13 years as a Wasps icon he won two league titles played five times for the Barbarians and got to play in front of a 75,000 full house at Twickenham in the 1995 Pilkington Cup.
Today, nearing 50 White can still be seen regularly at top matches in his role as an RFU citing officer.
The irony isn’t lost on the man, who admits: “No one could describe me as the shy and retiring type on the pitch. I never suffered fools gladly, but what I dished out I expected to get back in return.
“I didn’t feel I’d had a good game unless my back and legs were covered in scars at the final whistle.”
Big fish in a little pond
A Dorset lad, White played for southern counties and England under-19s, before moving to London to join Wasps as an amateur and pursue his dream of playing for England’s senior team.
“I could have stayed where I was and been a big fish in a little pond, but my dad persuaded me to give it a go,” he says.
“I initially shared a flat with Nigel Melville and Huw Davies and was a bit in awe of them - after all, they were internationals and I was just a Dorset boy. Huw apparently told my mother that I had arrived as a boy and would be sent back a man and I suppose that’s what happened.
“I wouldn’t have got anywhere in my career if it hadn’t been for my father. He encouraged me and pushed me when necessary. He had been a number six too and was as hard as nails on the pitch.
“When I first joined Wasps, he would drive me up from Dorset for training twice a week and we would get back at midnight. He’s still around and I’m so glad I was able to repay his faith in me. He’s always been my biggest fan.”
For most of his career, White couldn’t earn a living as a rugby player and for some years worked for Nike, but had one season as a professional after leaving the brand in 1999.
“Then I dropped down a level and played for semi-pro London Welsh,” he says. “The standard was still good and we had some great players and a top coach in Clive Griffiths. The trouble is, I was born 10 years too early. The game has totally changed since my day, with all the money, the pressure and the media attention.
“The whole ethos is different. They’re even talking about getting rid of scrums. You can’t do that - scrums have always been a vital part of the game.
“On the other hand, the camaraderie has never changed. There’s no sport like it. You can go anywhere in the world and bump into someone you’ve played with or against. Of course, I regret not getting any full England caps, but I wouldn’t have had any other life.”
White stayed with Nike for eight years, followed by five years at Canterbury. He now works for a number of sportswear brands, including Bjorn Borg and adidas sunglasses, and is in demand for coaching and freelance work.
Poacher turned gamekeeper
Nowadays White sees all the best matches as a citing officer and gets paid for it. When we spoke, he was off to officiate at Twickenham.
“You’re a bit like the fourth official in football,” White says. “You watch the game, review it in the Sky wagon afterwards and decide whether any incidents need to be cited.”
“If, for instance, the referee has given a yellow card and I think it should have been red, I can put my view to the RFU. Although they pay us, we work completely independently. You do get the occasional rush of blood to the head, but bearing in mind how high profile rugby now is, it’s a hard game, but still a sporting one.
“If I’d had a pound for every time someone has called me a poacher turned gamekeeper, I could probably have retired by now.”