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
Tuesday 01 February 2011
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
2008 IRB Player of 2010 Premiership
the Year (above)Player of the Year
33 Age 23
5ft 7in Height6ft
12st 1lb Weight14st 6lb
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