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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'That's something he learned off Phipps, one of world rugby's best'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

London Irish head coach Les Kiss has revealed the legacy of Ben White learning the Gallagher Premiership ropes under Nick Phipps last season. The former Australian scrum-half has since moved on from the English capital club to Japan, paving the way for the 24-year-old Scotland international to step up as the current first-choice in Declan Kidney’s top-flight team.

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His third successive start on Saturday at Bristol – a try-scoring appearance that included a yellow card – is already one more start in the No9 jersey than he had last season with Phipps on the prowl, White starting just twice in his 17 Premiership appearances. But that 2021/22 campaign mostly sat on the bench wasn’t a waste for someone well used to playing second fiddle throughout his career up to now.

White originally came through the ranks at Leicester but his opportunities there were also limited, the half-back starting on 14 occasions in his 44 Premiership appearances before he opted to move south and join London Irish.

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From the outside looking in, White enduring the same held-back-as-a-replacement experience that he had at Leicester could appear to have been a negative for him at Irish last term. However, Kiss told a very different story to RugbyPass, explaining that being the second choice to Phipps was an invaluable learning opportunity enthusiastically embraced.

“He was brilliant,” said Kiss about watching the development of White at Irish behind the then first-choice Phipps. “Ben just wants to be the best he can be and one of the parts he is brilliant at is he will do best for the team, whatever the team needs, and that is a real strength of his. I don’t think it kept him down, it just made him try harder but he also took some really important lessons from Nick.

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“Nick last year just moved the ball quickly and that is where Ben has got to keep developing. Don’t wait for perfect pictures, just get the ball and send it quickly from the base, just get there and make that happen – and that is something he has learned off Nick Phipps who was one of the best in world rugby and has served our game well.

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“That is what Ben took from it. He knows that he has to just play now, not wait for perfect pictures, and challenge the defence as much as he can. He is definitely a team player. He didn’t ride it in a negative sense, he just looked at it as an opportunity to grow and with someone like Nick, there was no better man to learn from for sure.”

Mention onfield chat, which is something Phipps was very well known for, how do White’s vocals measure up in the comparison? “The biggest thing that has developed is his talking,” reckoned Kiss. “He is not a quiet lad by any sense. In the locker room, he is very team driven but on the pitch, he has grown even more.

“We like our nines to be a part of the pack as well, just growing the understanding of you working for them and getting them to work for you but you have got to look after them, so he understands that and he is crucial in terms of reading pictures for space that we need to exploit off his foot as well.

“That is one of the big things on the pitch that has really developed in the last six months. He is a more direct, vocal guy on the pitch which we need because Nick, we couldn’t shut him up. We need all our nines to be busy with their voice and he has really developed in that area.”

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White jumped to worldwide fame last February when his Test debut as a fleeting first-half HIA replacement for Ali Price resulted in him scoring a Guinness Six Nations try for Scotland – the “best ten minutes of my life” – that helped to tip the Calcutta Cup game with England their way. He went on to earn four caps in the tournament as a sub and the stride forward he then took as the starting No9 in the second July Test in Argentina wasn’t lost on club coach Kiss.

“He was in command of himself and his team as a nine. It’s funny, I love the French nines and the way they seem to play. I don’t want to say he was a French nine but he was a nine he needed to be and it was a blueprint about how well he is when he is on top of his game. He is still learning a lot but I am challenging him to nail the important moments all the time and you get that experience by being exposed at that level more and more.

“He is getting the start at the moment but we have got four good nines here that can step up for sure. He is getting the call at the moment and is managing it well. He has got a good kicking game and his big danger is his running game as well. He is a solid lad. When you are near him he is hard to hold down, when he gets going he is quite quick. It is an important period for him as he gets this start to be able to build.

“But being on a tour away in Argentina and playing with the Scottish team, I know Gregor (Townsend) pretty well so he has got him into a good place as well. He is getting these varied experiences after his time at Leicester and he is just going to grow better and more effective as we go along.

“We have had Caolan Englefield on the bench at this stage. Hugh O’Sullivan ran the team brilliantly the night (in the Premiership Cup). We have got Joe Powell back in a few weeks as he has got a slight little injury, so we have got some good cover there and they are working well together but Ben has got his chance at the moment and is doing well.”

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