I’m struggling to remember the last time three members from the same team appeared at individual disciplinary hearings on the same day. Yet three ‘Saints’ travelled down to London last night to face the wrath of His Honour Jeff Blackett and learn their fates.
It comes at a poignant time in Northampton’s season, made all the more so with the latest suspensions of Phil Dowson and Chris Ashton. When you consider who are the real big players that Saints would struggle without, those two end up near the top of the list. Dowson is acclaimed for his work at both breakdown and the lineout, a competitor to the end, inspirational to follow with his physical approach to the game. Maybe it’s having spent years struggling with Newcastle that has made him the player he is today. Lose that dynamism, that intensity, and those narrow margins that you normally edge in a match go against you.
Which brings us to Ashton. General reaction, roughly 80%, suggests that the rugby public wanted him to be punished. Two weeks was expected, six weeks the original sentence given, before being cut down to four weeks for good behaviour both in the past and at the hearing.
It’s hard to believe that a year ago, Ashton was thought of so highly by the public following that try at Twickenham against the Wallabies. What followed was disappointment domestically with Northampton, the agony of the Heineken Cup final, and then the disaster of the World Cup where Ashton was heavily involved in seemingly all that was negative. On coming back to play for Saints, he was chastised by public and media for seemingly giving up in the build-up to the Scarlets bonus point try. Not forgetting the perhaps ill-timed publication of an autobiography. And now this suspension.
It’s a pity, because despite his popularity disintegrating, Ashton has scored four tries in six games for Northampton since his return, including a blinder against Leicester last weekend. Northampton can cope with his loss, through Vasily Artemyev, Paul Diggin and Scott Armstrong, but it’s in the back row where Dowson’s absence will hit them hardest.
Already without Calum Clark due to a fractured thumb, whilst Roger Wilson is also unavailable following an elbow injury against Leicester, Northampton were lucky that Wood was also not banned, given that they only have Ben Nutley, Samu Manoa and 19 year old Jamie Warr left, a flanker who is yet to make a start. Fail to defeat Castres over the next fortnight in the Heineken Cup, and Northampton will have lost five out of their last six.
by Ben Coles