A year ago Chris Ashton scored four tries against Italy in a 59-13 Twickenham victory. He barely got four passes yesterday, as the Azzurri threw away the opportunity to register a first win over England.
With England choosing charge-downs by Charlie Hodgson as their preferred choice of try creation, Ashton is having a lean time of things. Unless he rediscovers his former self, the ambitious Charlie Sharples of Gloucester will be asking for the No 14 England jersey – which he wears while operating on the left wing, to accommodate Dave Strettle.
Having scored two against the Welsh and a total of nine in nine Tests, it appeared Ashton was on course for a season of major achievement in 2011. But it didn't get any better than that. The "Ash the Splash" captions were everywhere and despite being asked not to put on a Tom Daley-style performance when he crossed under the posts, the Northampton flyer ignored Martin Johnson's plea and was his own man.
Yes, he could be annoying, but at least England had someone young children wanted to copy. Not now.Not on this form.
A far from impressive World Cup – in keeping with the rest of the England players in New Zealand – led into this season with Northampton, one that produced acrimony as he negotiated a move to the Premiership champions, Saracens. Ashton was picked on his reputation against Scotland and delivered an acceptable if low-key performance, one that featured a poor decision to take the ball off scrum-half Ben Youngs deep inside England's 22 , leading to a scragging and a Scotland penalty.
This was only his fourth match of the year and he had not even reached the try line, let alone flown high as he crossed it.
It took 31 minutes and 56 seconds for England to move the ball left in an orthodox passing exhibition that reached Ashton. He was engulfed and forced to set up a maul. The men inside merely shipped on the responsibility, and boy did it show. That action was initiated by a rare loss of a line-out by the impressive Alessandro Zanni, the Italian blindside flanker whose drive into contact made ground every time.
Earlier Ashton had looked like his former self by shadowing the action waiting to be given the inside ball to cut through – at least, that was the intention. As he does not have that blistering pace at present and the team are not looking to offload in heavy traffic it seemed a waste of his energy.
Still, he was aware of the threat from Italy's fly-half, Kristopher Burton, whose kicking was at best inconsistent. One long boot cleared Asthon, who did well to race back and catch on the stretch while calling for a mark. It was quality stuff... until the wing put boot to ball and hoofed it aimlessly downfield to an Italian catcher.
Ashton did not impress with his defensive work, allowing the ball carrier to drive past him and set up the ruck on his own terms. The wing has the physical strength to knock any opponent back but he appeared tentative on a bitterly cold afternoon for wings.
Wearing numbers 14 and 11 is a thankless and finger-numbing experience on an Arctic day and you could understand Ashton's desire to stick close to the body heat of others. However, he became a lonely figure as the half wore on and chances became very limited thanks to poor decision-making by the half-backs, who seemed to relish putting boot to ball.
The arrival of Lee Dickson at scrum-half in place of Youngs was hugely significant – he exploited the blind side with real pace and his speed of thought greatly aided the cause. Ashton picked up on his Saints team-mate's play and started appearing at outside-centre, although a left-hand pass to Dave Strettle was of the Barnes Wallis variety. He was unlucky not to get a pass from Ben Foden close to the line; at least he was in the right place.
He then let himself down with an unnecessary push in the back of Tobias Botes, who had chipped ahead. It handed Italy's replacement fly-half a penalty which he managed to totally scuff. It was the kind of error seen on park pitches, not the Stadio Olimpico in a Six Nations match.
With luck like that, don't bet against England retaining the title.
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