The final game of England's autumn international schedule remains little more than a blur to Chris Ashton. Asked yesterday what he could recall of the 80 minutes against the Springboks a week past Saturday, the spring-heeled Northampton Saint replied: "Nothing at all. But I think I can remember the bus journey."
Whether that was the journey to or from Twickenham, Ashton could not say for sure. Thankfully for the 23-year-old winger, he has no memory of the bus of the South African pack grinding relentlessly through the gears, driving the tourists to a 21-11 victory – nor of the less-than-with-it display he produced after his seventh-minute collision with Victor Matfield. The Springbok captain suffered a broken rib but proceeded to play his usual influential role. Ashton, after a prolonged period of treatment and much debate, insisted on playing on and did so in a state of some disorientation, almost immediately costing his side a try and doing so late in the game with a missed tackle on Lwazi Mvovo.
Asked whether it was his decision to remain in the heat of battle, he said: "Oh, yes. I must have been very convincing. I was desperate to stay on the field. It's probably not the best decision I've made."
Still, every clouded piece of judgement has its silver lining. After cognitive tests, the man who scored that all-time stunner of a Twickenham try in England's 35-18 demolition of Australia a month ago has not just been passed fit to play in Northampton's Heineken Cup Pool 1 contest against Cardiff Blues at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday but with flying colours. "I recorded my highest score ever, so it's obviously knocked some sense into me," Ashton said.
Saturday's tie kicks off at 12.45pm but the attempts at psychological points-scoring is already under way between the Premiership leaders and the Amlin Challenge Cup holders. Dai Young, the Blues' director of rugby, opened proceedings by questioning the legality of Saints' scrummaging.
"They normally have penalties awarded to them and we have got to hope the referee sorts out their tight-head because he just turns in all game," the former Wales and British and Irish Lions prop said. "It is in the laws that you have to scrummage straight. If you look at their tight-head prop, whether it be Brian Mujati or Euan Murray, he tends to just angle in all the time past the loose-head and straight onto the hooker. The scrum can then pull out and walk through which is difficult to stop and often gets penalised."
Dorian West, Saints' forwards coach and a one-time England hooker, said he was "amazed" by Young's comments. "This season we've been congratulated on our scrummaging and on how legal we are in that department," he added. It just so happens that Romain Poite, the Frenchman regarded as the world's leading officiator of scrummaging affairs, will be the referee at the Gardens.
At Thomond Park in Limerick on Sunday, there will be no Lee Byrne in the Ospreys team lining up against Munster in Pool 3. It was confirmed yesterday that Byrne had suffered a fractured thumb playing for Wales against the All Blacks and will be out of action for five weeks.