Ashton aiming to cast spell on wing wizard Williams

Friday's opening salvo in this year's Six Nations boasts a speedy showdown to set the pulses racing. Chris Hewett reports

Countless thousands of rugby followers up and down the country were calling it the "try of the century" the moment it was scored, so the International Rugby Board's decision to make it their "try of the year" was small potatoes by comparison. Chris Ashton, the man responsible for that epic, length-of-the-field five-pointer against the Wallabies at Twickenham last November, was suitably underwhelmed. "It's nice, but I don't spend too much time thinking about what's gone," he said. "I'm much more interested in working out a way to score against Wales on Friday night."

All the same, there was some obvious linkage between yesterday's award announcement and England's imminent Six Nations business in Cardiff, the first game in a tournament popularly described as the least predictable in ages – that is, since the 2010 competition, which was equally hard to call. Ashton's direct opponent at the Millennium Stadium will be Shane Willliams, the folk-hero wing from Ospreylia who scored two of the "inferior" tries on the IRB shortlist. For the union connoisseur, it is a match-up made in heaven: perhaps the most intriguing, potentially exhilarating individual contest of its kind since Gerald Davies and David Duckham were on each other's cases back in the 1970s.

Ashton currently boasts the grand total of seven caps, and has scored three tries at international level. As Williams' vital statistics are rather more impressive – 75 Test appearances for the Red Dragons; 51 tries in the bag – it might seem entirely wrong-headed to flag this up as one of the great confrontations in modern-day rugby. But there is no doubt Ashton is blessed with many of the gifts that make Williams the Gerald of his era, to the extent that many see him as England's Shane.

"He's been a massive player for Wales for years now," Ashton acknowledged when asked for his thoughts on Williams. "I'll give him ultimate respect, but I'll also be very conscious of the need to be better than him on this occasion. If there are similarities in style – and I agree that he plays the game the way I like to play it, operating all over the pitch – they are accidental. But it will be an honour to play against him, just as it will be an honour to be involved in a match of this magnitude. One of the big factors in my decision to come to union from rugby league is that these games don't happen in league. I played at the Millennium Stadium when I was at Wigan, but it wasn't full of passionate Welshmen, as it will be on Friday."

His last game for England, against the Springboks a little over two months ago, was less than memorable, and he remembers less about it than most, owing to the smack on the head he received early in the game. The whys and wherefores of his decision to play on despite the fact that he had taken up temporary residence in la-la land – there was no need to be able to spell "neurosurgeon", let alone qualify as one, to reach the conclusion that he was heavily concussed – were debated long and hard in the days after the match, and Ashton has since admitted that he got the discretion-valour calculation badly wrong.

Should it have been his call to make, though? Is it not the case that professional rugby teams employ medical staff to do the calling on behalf of the players, thereby protecting them from themselves? Ashton's response was not entirely satisfactory from the player welfare perspective. "It's a hard thing for them to judge if a player is putting on a good enough act," he argued. "If you're saying you're fine, what can they do?"

Happily, Ashton's most recent injury was less complicated – a bog-standard thigh strain that prevented him contributing to Northampton's highly impressive Heineken Cup victories over Edinburgh and Castres but cleared up sufficiently quickly to give him a clear run through the Six Nations training camp in Portugal last week.

"I could probably have played in Castres, but it was best to make sure," he said. "We did a lot of running in Portgual, so I think I'm back up to speed. If I'm not, we'll find out on Friday, won't we?"

In common with all the England players who have yet to sample the very particular delights of a Six Nations match in Wales – from the back division alone, Ben Foden, Shontayne Hape and Ben Youngs will be accompanying him into the unknown – he is salivating at the prospect of performing in an environment that ranks among the most hostile in world rugby. And then there is Dylan Hartley, his club captain, whose experience of the venue on Wales-England day is limited to an appearance off the bench in 2009, and who has, in the intervening years, become established as the red-rose troupe's pantomime villain.

How might Hartley, a combustible sort at the best of times, react to the baiting of a home crowd egged on by Warren Gatland, who now performs two roles within the Welsh squad: head coach, and provocateur-in-chief? Gatland's public criticism of the hooker last week, stemming from incidents in two rough-house Heineken Cup matches between Northampton and Cardiff Blues in December, was unusually personal in tone. Can Ashton really imagine Hartley smiling quietly to himself, putting it to the back of his mind and setting about his work with cold-eyed detachment?

"Dylan knows what it's like," the wing replied. "He's only young, but he's already done so much in the game and anyway, he's a changed player now – a completely different person to when I first knew him at Northampton. He won't let this faze him at all. Yes, those Cardiff Blues matches were pretty hard, but I like to think that when a game's finished, it's finished. There won't be anything carried over from it on Friday, I hope. There's enough bad blood between England and Wales as it is."

Match-up on the wing

Shane Williams Chris Ashton

Wales ngland

2008 IRB Player of 2010 Premiership

the Year (above)Player of the Year

33 Age 23

OspreysClub Northampton

75 Tests7

51Tries3

5ft 7in Height6ft

12st 1lb Weight14st 6lb

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there