Chris Ashton: Not so flash but still keen to make a splash in Rome

Winger says time away with England has been a relief after a troubled spell with his club Northampton

The make-up of the England backline that saw out the final, victorious minutes in Scotland last weekend could not have been less familiar if a load of players' names had been tossed in a cloth bag and pulled out randomly in some kind of rugby Scrabble. For all the new-broom methodology of the Six Nations champions, it smacked of near-madness to witness Chris Ashton and Ben Foden as the nominal grey hairs of the piece, but that was the case with their 40 caps between – 30 more than their fellow finishers Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Jordan Turner-Hall, Dave Strettle and Mike Brown put together.

Ashton's presence as a rock in the hard place that was Murrayfield represented a minor triumph. In that part of the forefront of the nation's sporting consciousness only rarely occupied by rugby union, the Northampton wing was in danger as 2011 turned into 2012 of crossing the boundary from great character to caricature. His regular scoring and spectacular finishing had dissipated during an unsatisfying World Cup – albeit Ashton was joint top try scorer with France's Vincent Clerc – and an apparent dash for cash as he brought out a book that glossed over the notorious incident with a New Zealander hotel worker, and the other escapades of England's trip.

A period of quiet reflection around the new year might have been welcome; instead it was announced that Ashton, 24, had signed to play next season for Northampton's bitter rivals, Saracens. Cue more bad publicity over a reported training-ground argument with the Northampton coach Jim Mallinder, who dropped Ashton for the next match against Munster.

So considering Ashton had played only two matches in eight weeks before the Six Nations – half of that time spent banned for pulling the braided hair of Leicester's Alesana Tuilagi in a tackle – he did well to see off Charlie Sharples of Gloucester and keep his England place. With the same 22 in the same formation set for Italy in Rome this Saturday, Ashton admitted that a few weeks spent on national service had been a relief.

"Yes, things have settled down, I've been glad for being here, very much so," he said. "New environment, fresh start, a lot of smiles on people's faces. All back to normal. I would have liked to have had more ball against Scotland but sometimes the game pans out differently."

While his newspaper column has been discontinued, and the second book of a two-part deal is planned only loosely for Christmas 2013, something of the same on the pitch from the meeting with Italy last year, when Ashton scored four tries, would do nicely. Again, though, a good memory has a dark shadow. An "Ash Splash" scoring dive performed right in front of an opponent hinted at the least at a lack of awareness of others' sensibilities. Does he expect an Ash Splash backlash?

"Maybe, maybe, but there's nothing I can do about that, is there? If they're going to do that it's going to create holes elsewhere. On the other hand, they might have forgotten."

No team-mate knows Ashton better than Foden, the Northampton full-back. "Messing around is part of Ashy's character," he said, "and no one wants to take that away from him, but he has to realise there is a right time to tune in and I think he's aware of that and has reined it in a bit. He's still the same old guy behind closed doors with his mates. He came over from rugby league, blazed a way when we were in the second division, lost his way a little bit, found his feet and rose to stardom straight away with England. That's the nature of his character, he has his ups and downs. Hopefully we'll see him cross the whitewash soon, back to his old ways."

So if this is a third coming, in the way Foden described it, the Wiganer who has 90 tries in 106 appearances for Northampton and 15 in 19 for England is trusting the national side have the game plan and attitude to capitalise anew on his instinctive tracking of the ball.

"I rely on us getting through the phases then I can work off my wing," said Ashton. "Otherwise I can be standing around getting cold on the wing which I don't like to do. Stuart Lancaster encourages us to play with freedom, at the right times." But there is caution too. "This is the week when I think we could get caught out. Last week was easier because we had a two-week build-up. We're not underestimating Italy. They beat France over there last year."

In Scotland, save for one break, Ashton was seen mostly in defence. England were notably clean-nosed at the breakdown, springing back, avoiding costly penalties. Another sign of a new discipline.

"It's a mindset for everyone," said Ashton. "We were getting referees' backs up at the World Cup and we don't want to be known for that. Being involved with the team you can get a bit lost with that, you can't see it. It takes someone like Stu to come in and spot it."

The defensive pattern and specific back-three instructions were set by Lancaster's assistant coach, Andy Farrell. The latter is, of course, on secondment from Saracens, and Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Strettle from Saturday's backline are Ashton's club-mates-to-be. That's handy, getting to know them in the Six Nations? A knowing grin brightened Ashton's face. "I'm happy they're here, and that they're in the team but that's as far as it goes. I'm only thinking about playing well for England, and making sure we're winning."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?