Chris Ashton has not lacked for column inches this season. It is what he crossed codes for, the recognition that goes with sporting achievement and the international variety that places rugby union so far ahead of league. All in a year during which he lost his greatest supporter, critic and friend.
Kevin Ashton, the Northampton and England wing's father, died of cancer a year ago tomorrow. Every match Chris has played since then has been a tribute to the man who encouraged him to stay in union when the future seemed bleak and had the satisfaction of seeing his son win his first cap in Paris, six weeks before his death aged 55. "If anything, dad's passing inspired me to do better, and it keeps doing that," Ashton said ahead of today's Heineken Cup semi-final between Northampton and Perpignan. "I want to play every game the best I can because I know he'll be watching."
It sounds trite, as the sentiments expressed about death often do. But it is heartfelt, part of the maturation of the 24-year-old that was probably going to happen around this time anyway. The bubbly, wise-cracking youngster is still there but he takes a moment longer to phrase responses, there is added effort in the way he applies himself to his job.
Another northerner, Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, describes Ashton's rise in the rugby world as "pretty rapid". You could say. Twelve England caps, nine tries, hailed as the successor to Jason Robinson no less, a World Cup wing in waiting, mainstay of a club side ambitious to reclaim the European crown that was theirs in 2000 and the domestic title which has so often found a home with their fiercest local rivals, Leicester.
"You could see how much he has progressed against London Irish last weekend," Mallinder said. "We had the finishing [Ashton scored two tries], the 60-70 metres of blistering pace, the support lines, but also the try-saving tackles and his ability to win ball in contact which shows how much he has learned.
"Off the field too. In team meetings he contributes in terms of strategy and team tactics. He came to rugby union as a very quick, talented league player. He has absorbed everything in union, from England, from our coaches, from watching games. I think it's helped him being in a club such as Northampton where, even though we have a lot of high-profile players, we remain a down-to-earth club where the players drive the culture."
That there were doubts in Ashton's mind about whether he would make it in union is a matter of record: how he contemplated returning to his native Wigan, only to be persuaded by his father – who played union for Wigan despite supporting the league club – to stick it out in the Midlands.
Kevin and Angela, Ashton's mother, became part of the travelling circus of Northampton fans and the family support group remains strong. Paul Grayson, the former England fly-half who is now Saints' assistant coach, is also from the North-west and is clearly a valued mentor to the player.
"The way I've been brought up, getting above yourself would never be an issue," Ashton said when asked about the translation from playing with England in front of 80,000 to the more modest confines of Franklin's Gardens. "You take a lot of confidence from playing for England and I try to bring that to Northampton.
"I made a statement walking away from league when there was so much before me. The instincts of the rugby player don't change but I had to learn to think like a union player. I still have a lot to learn but much of that comes from experience and I'll add to that this weekend – I've never been in a Heineken Cup semi-final before and, when I was in the league box, I didn'thave any idea about French clubs.
"League can be harsh on people, particularly youngsters, you have to be strong to survive. At Northampton, with the kind of squad we have, you can fit in more and we have reached this stage of Europe quite quietly. We don't mind that. With England during the Six Nations we became more tense as a side as the expectation grew and you could see that against Ireland [when England lost the Grand Slam].
"I don't know if the hype around Northampton has been that great. We're in a semi-final and people still don't regard us as a threat. Last year we scraped into the last eight, lost at Munster and our season dropped off, but I remember talking to the Munsterplayers after and they said how long it had taken them to win the trophy. They had to learn, to get back up again and get used to winning. Perpignan will come out all guns blazing, this tournament means a lot to French clubs. But we're where we want to be."
Northampton Saints v Perpignan is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 3pm
Tyro shuns limelight
When Calum Clark moved from Leeds to Northampton last summer, days like today formed part of the reason: "It's as big a game as I have ever played in, so far," Clark said. But few of Northampton's squad have contributed more this season to the club reaching a Heineken Cup semi-final as the uncapped back-five forward.
The 21-year-old has appeared in all but one of their 32 games, 19 times in the starting XV, playing 1,608 minutes of game time. He has scored two tries and, despite his youth, has been captain on three occasions, recalling the fact that two years ago Clark led England to an Under-20 world final.
It is the consistency of "lesser lights" such as Clark and Lee Dickson that has kept Saints fighting successfully on both domestic and European fronts.
"I don't play for the headlines or the match awards, I play because I love winning, being part of a winning team," says Clark, who plays with equal facility at lock or flanker, and who is all too aware that Leeds, his old club, are fighting for their Aviva Premiership lives.
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