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."
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