Ashton try strengthens case for England place

Northampton 24 London Irish 22: Former Wigan wing scores late to sink Irish and move Saints into second
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England's squad for the Six Nations will be announced on Wednesday week and on current form it would be surprising if Chris Ashton was overlooked. The 22-year-old wing enhanced his reputation here with a try, with 40 seconds left, that capped a dramatic comeback by Northampton, who had been eight points behind with 10 minutes remaining. In front of two England coaches, Brian Smith and John Wells, the former Wigan rugby league player made it 15 tries in 16 matches – and seven in four league games – to lift Saints above Irish and within a point of Saracens, the stuttering leaders.

Ashton, who was part of England's training squad during the autumn internationals but was not called on to play, said: "I would pretty much do anything to score a try."

Until the last minute, he had been kept quiet by a prodigious Irish defensive effort. Then he ran on to an inside pass from Shane Geraghty, Saints' substitute fly-half, and collected the ball as it bounced off his chest. He then used his leg strength to get over the line despite the presence of a couple of tacklers. Pleas from Irish that he had failed to ground the ball came to nothing. Geraghty converted from in front of the posts and the game was won.

"Geraghty knows exactly how they defend and it was the right move to call," said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, who signed the England player from Irish last summer.

Irish were unlucky. After ending Saracens' unbeaten record in the league last week with a late try, they were close to becoming the second team to win here since March 2007.

"I thought we were very, very good," said Toby Booth, their head coach. "We believe we are good enough to win anywhere and for 79 minutes and 20 seconds, we were so here."

Elvis Seveali'i, the scorer of the Irish's winning try against Sarries, was a late withdrawal with a knee injury sustained on the morning of the match. But the Samoan centre's absence did not effect his team's attacking rhythm early on. In a riveting opening spell, the Exiles spread the ball to both wings and only a robust tackle by Ashton on Delon Armitage prevented the full-back going over down the left. They were two of 11 potential England players being watched by Smith and Wells.

Stephen Myler kicked Northampton ahead, with a penalty in front of the posts, on his side's first foray forward, but Irish were more ferocious at the breakdown and it was in this department that they forced Saints to concede three penalties, all in kickable range. Chris Malone kicked all three for a 9-3 lead.

Myler reduced the gap with a 32nd-minute penalty that resulted from one of two scuffles that involved the Exiles' England lock, Nick Kennedy, but Irish should have gone into the break further ahead than 9-6 – Malone missed two drop-goal attempts from close range.

Saints started the second half like a train and after Soane Tonga'uiha, the Tongan prop who led the team out on his 100th appearance, had taken a short line-out, a ruck was set up and the flanker Phil Dowson ploughed over from close range for the first try of the match. Myler missed the conversion and was then told not to go for goal when Northampton were awarded kickable penalties in the 51st and 55th minutes.

The home team were well on top at that stage and their forwards were thoroughly dominant, but those decisions looked wrong. Mallinder acknowledged as much after the match, after it had seemed that the calls would come back to haunt them. On 58 minutes, the home full-back Ben Foden's pass to Ashton was intercepted by Peter Hewat just inside the Irish 22. The Australian wing had enough pace to defeat Paul Diggin in a sprint. Malone converted from the touchline.

Malone and Myler traded penalties before the former's 70th-minute drop-goal put Irish 22-14 up and seemed to seal the victory. Saints did not give up, however, and in a pulsating finish Geraghty kicked a penalty from halfway before Ashton's the last-gasp heroics.

Northampton B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin (C Mayor, 69); S Myler (S Geraghty, 67), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray, I Fernandez Lobbe (N Best, 55), J Kruger, C Lawes, R Wilson, P Dowson.

London Irish D Armitage; P Hewat, T Homer, S Mapusua, J Rudd; C Malone, P Hodgson; C Dermody (D Murphy, 55), D Paice, P Ion (F Rautenbach, 55), N Kennedy, B Casey (capt; A Perry, 78), K Roche, C Hala'Ufia, S Armitage.

Referee: S Davey (London).