Fewer England players seem to get as rough a ride as Chris Ashton. Whether it’s the swallow dive, or the incident with Alesana Tuilagi’s hair, or even the recent announcement that he will leave Northampton Saints at the end of this season, not many seem reluctant to keep their opinions on him to themselves.
This is all despite having scored 15 tries in 21 appearances for England. Admittedly, it is currently four matches since he last crossed the whitewash for his country, but Ashton is not concerned. Speaking to promote RBS RugbyForce, he clarified that as of yet there was no itch. “Not really, not after four games. In this Six Nations, the Wales game was a bit different, but the way the first two games went they just weren’t games for wingers at all. We might as well have had two props out there. I think if you look at the video from the Wales game the chances are there, it’s just about still adapting to the new systems. I’m still doing exactly what I always do, but sometimes it doesn’t go for you.”
It’s for that reason that despite playing in all three matches so far in this year’s Six Nations, Ashton was left frustrated to be without a match last weekend. “There’s always a chance of injury, but it is nice to play every week. It’s pretty difficult when it’s stop-start and it’s been like that all season for me. You always get better and find your best form by playing every week. But there’s not that much you can do about it, you’ve just got to get your head round it.”
His pedigree at international level is enough to tell you that more tries will come. But as Ashton points out, when England’s attack is as limited as it was against Scotland and Italy, he is less likely to be ending up on the scoresheet. However that doesn’t mean that he is not aware of the criticism coming his way, or the threat of Charlie Sharples. “There are some situations that I’ve got no control over. As long as I’m offering and putting myself in the best positions that I can, that’s all I can keep doing.”
“Charlie’s a good player. It’s good to have him around, he’s been struggling of late with a few injuries. There are only three wingers in the squad with me, Strettle and him so we’re always changing around in training. He could definitely fit in there.”
“If you keep working to be the best you can be then I’m sure the chances will come round. There’s a little bit of ignoring what certain people say. Not people like Stuart (Lancaster) obviously, but you’ve just got to listen to the people that matter. That’s the coaches here.”
Ashton’s combination with Strettle, plus three other Saracens in the back line for this year’s tournament with England, will have given fans a taster of things to come at Vicarage Road next season. Joining the current Premiership champions on a four year deal, it’s a move that Ashton is excited about. “It is tough to move on as I’ve spent so much time at Northampton. I’ve got great friends there and the club have done a lot for me. I just think change is good and if the experience is there to be taken I don’t see why I shouldn’t grab it and try to experience everything. Saracens do things differently. That was part of the appeal and right now they’re up there with the best.”
“I was at Wigan from 16, played my first full game at 18 and then had two full seasons for the first team before making the switch to Union. Now that I’ve had five years at Northampton, the time just feels right. After Saracens, the end of which is a long way off, who knows. I’d never rule out going back to league or moving to France. I think it’s just the kind of person that I am, since I’ve been at Northampton I’ve moved house every single year! I like a change of scenery.”
In preparation for next weekend, Ashton watched Sunday’s draw between Ireland and France and felt that France should be disappointed. What did stand out however was the experience in both sides with regards to the number of caps, a figure that England right now are nowhere near. “Both sides had over 600 caps, but I bet we’d struggle to make 200. You need to start somewhere though. I think Robbo (Chris Robshaw) has done really well as captain. Ben Morgan’s been great with the ball in hand. The way Owen Farrell has come in at such a young age and just slotted in has been really impressive.”
On returning to Paris, Ashton admits that his debut in the same fixture the last time England were at the Stade de France feels like an eternity ago. “It does seem a long time ago. Hopefully the one chance that I didn’t take will come around again. But it was a good day and a great place to make your debut. That was our best performance during the Six Nations that year. It’s a massive place to go and play.” If England can produce their season’s best once more in Paris, then a victory is definitely within their grasp.
by Ben Coles
Chris Ashton is supporting RBS RugbyForce, the community volunteer programme that is improving club facilities. To register your club, visit rbs.com/rugbyforce