If a club as rich, resourceful and ruthless as Clermont Auvergne can lose a Heineken Cup semi-final by a record 46-6 margin, it is tempting to think that most things are possible in professional rugby. Even if it does not transpire that the astonishing Jacques Burger was born in Wapping rather than Windhoek and is therefore available to play for England in next year’s World Cup, it is entirely feasible on this evidence that Chris Ashton will return to red-rose duty in good time for the global shindig in a little over 500 days’ time.
Burger, as Namibian as they come (more’s the pity), was the talk of Twickenham at the weekend, and justifiably so: he went after each and every Clermont ball-carrier, from Sitiveni Sivivatu out wide to Fritz Lee in the back row, and set about them with a relish, if you’ll pardon the cheap pun on the name. He made the best part of 30 tackles, most of them blood-curdlingly ferocious, and treated every 20-80 ball as an even-money shot. By the time he had stopped flipping and flattening opponents of all shapes and sizes, Saracens were over the hills and far away.
As Clermont were counting their bruises, Burger was counting his blessings. “Unreal, eh?” he said after receiving a man-of-the-match award that Blind Pugh himself would have considered inevitable. “I was thinking about things this morning as I was packing my bag at home and starting to prepare for the game. When you have a serious injury, there are times when you wonder if you’ll ever get back to playing and, if you do, whether you’ll be as good as you were. I was gone for two years with my knee problems, so it’s incredibly rewarding to be back doing what I love. I hope when people watch they see someone who’s having fun.”
It would be stretching a point to suggest that Clermont were entertained by the sight of Burger enjoying himself, but in the fullness of time they will not begrudge him his day in the sun. Whatever is left of his right knee is no longer in a place where knees are usually found, such was the extent of the surgical intervention, and he spends most of his free time connected to an ice machine, which is handily situated next to his sofa. He does not know what it is to play without discomfort and while his pain threshold is clearly off the scale – “maybe I’m borderline stupid; maybe I’m just too dumb to feel it” – he suffers for his sport. In the age of the pampered pro, here is a man who puts himself through purgatory every time he sets foot on the field.
Ashton’s purgatorial fires burn at a lower temperature: a player out of form is immeasurably better off than a player half-crippled. But this has been a difficult season for him none the less, and if it ends with a recall to England colours on the summer tour of New Zealand, which it may well do on this showing, he will feel every bit as blessed as his clubmate.
There were any number of fine Saracens performances in a victory of unprecedented proportions, from Mako Vunipola’s close-quarter potency at loose-head prop to Alex Goode’s supremely intelligent contribution at full-back – a showing enriched by his goal-kicking prowess following the decision to relieve the recently injured Owen Farrell of the responsibility. Yet had the contest been tighter, as it could easily have been had one or two important decisions gone Clermont’s way in the opening quarter, Ashton might well have been the man who made the difference on the scoreboard.
Watched extremely closely by the England backs coach Andy Farrell, the discarded wing did all the things for his club that he failed to do for his country during the autumn internationals: he showed the exquisite timing of old on his roamings infield, finished with a minimum of fuss and defended effectively. Most importantly, his work-rate was high: not even Jack Nowell, the youngster from Exeter who wrestled him out of the Test shirt at the start of the Six Nations, could have put in a busier shift.
Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director, described Ashton’s display as “sensational”: not a word frequently used in this context over recent months, but an understandable choice given the quality of the two tries that took the former Northampton player to 11 for the campaign – a record at Heineken Cup level. The first, resulting from a double short-side hit down the left that brought Goode, Schalk Brits and Brad Barritt into play, was very much a team production; the second was all about individuality as Ashton showed Wesley Fofana a clean pair of heels down the right.
Only the England coaches themselves know how much trust they still have in their most dangerous, most idiosyncratic, most error-prone wing; only they can decide if Ashton possesses the rugby intelligence to maximise the sharpest set of attacking instincts in the red-rose game. All those on the outside know for sure is that when he is operating in a Saracens-type environment that emphasises the positive aspects of pressure rather than the negative ones – when he feels he is having as much fun as the mighty and magnificent Burger – he is quite an act.