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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project