In the week that Brian Ashton has named his squad for the forthcoming Six Nations, here is the second instalment of our look at budding young talent that, although lesser known, may be getting discussed by the powers that be at Twickenham…
Out of sight, out of mind? Northampton Saints may have slipped down to National Division 1, losing some of their better known stars such as Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson along the way, but they look set for a certain return straight back to the Premiership and will be bringing some new firepower with them. Rugby followers will have heard these names bandied about on Sky’s The Rugby Club and among certain clued up journalists, but what do we actually know about Northampton’s brightest young stars, both of whom have been tipped to do great things?
Dylan Hartley, Hooker
Born in New Zealand and brought up in Rotorua, Hartley plays with the rugged, confrontational style of rugby you would expect from the country that has reared men like Sean Fitzpatrick. Qualified for England he looked set to challenge for an outside shot at a place in the 2007 World Cup squad after a strong 6 Nations with England Saxons but was ruled out following a 26-week suspension for gouging in April.
Nevertheless he has cemented his place as Thompson’s natural successor in the front row and quickly established himself as a favourite at Franklin’s Gardens, signing a 2-year extension to his contract in November. Still only a fresh faced 21 year old he has the physical attributes to mix it with the big boys, his 1.85m frame weighing in at 111kg, and he knows where the try line is, scoring on his Saxons debut.
Mark Regan may be the incumbent for England, but can he really run out in the number 2 shirt a few days after his 36th birthday? Lee Mears is having a typically rumbustious season in a resurgent Bath team, but there are still doubts about the pocket dynamo brand he represents on the international stage. It may be a fair leap from playing teams such as Moseley and Esher to opposing Wales at Twickenham, but Ashton has the opportunity in the next year or so to really stamp his authority on the style of England’s play and Hartley may just feature prominently in Yoda’s philosophy.
Chris Ashton, Full Back
Of all the rugby league converts to switch codes, Chris Ashton has probably received the least attention, possibly because of his age and inexperience and that he joined a team just relegated from the Premiership. It was a bold move for the former Wigan Warrior – their player of the season last year already capped by England in the 13-a-side format and not long turned 20 – to move south to Franklin’s Gardens in August.
However, with a return of 20 tries from 17 matches, including a brace against local rivals Bedford at the weekend, it appears to have reaped dividends for club and player already. Unlike some of the more established and prominent players to cross the divide later in their careers (with the notable exception of big Jase), it clearly has not taken Ashton long to bed in and find his feet at union.
Equally adept on the wing, Ashton is not the biggest back standing at 5’ 10” and tipping the scales at 93kg but has skill and pace to burn with an outstanding finishing ability. He scored with his first touch of the ball as a replacement in his debut against London Welsh and his strike rate is nothing short of sensational. All the talk is of Mathew Tait showing great potential from Full Back but don’t be surprised to see the head coach’s namesake in England colours before too long.
Finally, a quick review of our previously featured pair: since the time of writing, Ben Woods has continued to turn in consistent performances for the Falcons, very prominent in their first away win in months at Saracens recently. Ollie ‘Shooter’ Philips meanwhile was included in the England 7s squad yet again, having a good tournament in Dubai where England were desperately unlucky to lose to Fiji in the semi-finals.
By Rob Douglas