If Chris Ashton was hurt by pundits taking a dim view of his tackling and lack of tries while he was with England in the Six Nations Championship, his return to club action with Saracens has salved the wounds.
Saturday’s 27-16 win over Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final was a Twickenham outing that went right but still there is a question as Sarries continue to pursue the Premiership-European double and it is not specifically about Ashton: it is about how any wing fits into the monumental pressure game they unleashed on an Ulster team who bemoaned their injuries and a lack of preparation time for key players.
Those of us who enthusiastically supported Ashton’s selection for England since he began tearing up trees for Northampton in the Second Division a few years ago still have little doubt about his work rate, his pace and the shock value of his unusual lines of support. It is when he adopts a more traditional wing position that he can look uneasy dealing with kicks or distributing in an orthodox way along the threequarter line.
Furthermore, while his second-half try against Ulster was superbly finished, Ashton’s and any wing’s task for Saracens can appear reduced to simply chasing kicks and helping out in the all-round harassment of the opposition.
Ashton’s try to put Saracens unassailably ahead at 27-9 after 62 minutes was a thing of beauty if you love playing the percentages. Saracens were presented, through an Ulster mistake, with what most would see as an ideal ball to run with, as their replacement prop Rhys Gill scooped up a fumble. Instead the reaction of Owen Farrell at fly-half was immediately to kick the ball high and long. Ulster whacked it back, Alex Goode made headway with a skipping run (the kind that was not very effective for England of late) and, with Brad Barritt cleverly sensing a gap, Ashton took his centre’s inside pass to bullet first past a tired lock forward and then trace an arc around a wing in Tommy Bowe who had just come on for his first match in four months. The referee, Romain Poite, took issue with Saracens’ time-consuming celebrations but Ulster, who were dozy when Will Fraser scored from a first-half line-out, were barely able to land a punch.
“The last few weeks have gone well for me,” said Ashton, also referring to Saracens’ wins over Harlequins, Wasps and Ulster since the Six Nations. “There are people in the team providing the space and trusting me in situations; that is all you need sometimes. It’s strange how the wind can change and start coming in your direction. I got [a try at Wasps] last week and I have got one this week so, hopefully, it will carry on.”
Ashton remains a relative newcomer at Saracens, with 16 appearances since he joined on big money last summer, and he is gradually getting used to the wolf-pack mentality that is the identity-conscious club’s latest motif. “Rhys Gill was going mental [when Ulster scored their only try in the 79th minute],” Ashton said, “and I was going, ‘The game’s over, mate, calm down’. We were annoyed. That’s the kind of place it is.
“With England, defence is difficult because everyone is coming from different systems. It will get better the longer we’re together. Saracens have been doing this for four years now and it’s getting better every year. The lads spend time in the positions and it is kind of an attacking weapon. They put so much pressure on the opposition they have got nowhere to go.”
Perhaps “Nowhere to Run” by Martha & the Vandellas could be the next addition to Saracens’ ever-expanding songsheet, to go with “Stand Up for the Saracens”, “Here We Go” and the latest addition, the club’s reworded variation of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables that filled Twickenham on Saturday. One line refers to “the blood of our heroes” watering the turf, which would surely make a terrible mess of the plastic pitch in Hendon.
But Twickenham will be the venue again for Saracens’ Heineken semi-final on Sunday 28 April – though they will not be able to flood it with their noise as the event will be staged more neutrally by European Rugby Cup – and the aim is to return for the Premiership final a month later. The European semi-final against Toulon will be no gimme, and the odds are on Clermont Auvergne being the finalists from the other side of the draw in Dublin on 18 May. It was Clermont who comfortably eliminated Saracens at Watford in last season’s quarters. “I think this team has got everything to get to the final,” said Ashton, who shared in Northampton’s loss to Leinster in the 2010 version.
Saracens: Tries Fraser, Ashton; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 5. Ulster: Try Henderson; Conversion Pienaar; Penalties Pienaar 3.
Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (C Hodgson, 73), B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles, 65); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (R Gill, 57), S Brits (J Smit, 59), M Stevens (P du Plessis, 76), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha, 57), K Brown, W Fraser (J Wray, 73), E Joubert.
Ulster J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave (T Bowe, 58), L Marshall (S Olding, 68), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black, 73), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt, R Diack, 64), D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry, N Williams.
Referee R Poite (France).