Chris Ashton: 'I definitely prefer union to league now'
He's cracked both codes but can Ashton hammer Scots today?
Sunday 13 March 2011
You can take the boy out of rugby league but the second half of that saying is proving more difficult. Chris Ashton is on the cusp of a Six Nations record, hoping to add to his six tries in the Championship when he plays for England at home to Scotland today, but he might have nabbed it already if things had worked out differently on the same Twickenham pitch a fortnight ago.
The chances came against France: one of them with 10 minutes remaining and the opportunity at 17-9 up to put the opposition away. Ashton had Vincent Clerc, the acting French full-back, where any wing would want him; a step off the left foot and surelyAshton would be away? Instead he tried to find Mark Cueto and a pug-ugly pass was intercepted. "Yeah, Cuetes is too slow," Ashton begins, going into his stock mickey-taking of his fellow Northerner and England wing, seven years his elder. "Or maybe I should have slowed up for Danny Care to catch me." Yes, yes, what was really going on? "If I was in that position again," Ashton says, "I don't think I'd go myself. It's not in me to do it. Well, it is, in one sense, but not if I know people are around me and I can make it an easier try. It's something that's been drilled into me from being a kid. In rugby league if you make a break, and there's a full-back, you make a pass, that's just what you do. I've only noticed since coming to union that a lot of lads don't do that."
England won anyway and what Ashton rejects is that the publicity leading in to the match – driven by his tries against Wales and Italy that left him two short of the Championship best set by Cyril Lowe and Ian Smith before the war – had made him take a less individualistic course; even more so, perhaps, because 25 minutes before the Clerc incident he had performed his swallow dive without realising the referee's whistle had blown. Ashton has begun a newspaper column, there is a book deal in the offing and he's had his teeth done. "It's not gone too mad," he insists. "There's nothing distracting me from rugby, and nothing will."
The exciting truth is that there is so much more Ashton might do. After four seasons at Northampton – the second one spent mostly in their second team – since he left Wigan in rugby league, he is still new to union's international scene: 11 months, 10 caps, nine tries. He has never taken on Scotland at anything – "the closest I've come is for Northampton against Edinburgh at Murrayfield," he says – and the same goes for Ireland, against whom England finish the Six Nations in Dublin next Saturday. As it happens, Ashton has some Irish blood but it runs a clear third to his late dad's background from Wigan and his mum's as a Liverpudlian.
When Ashton had laughed in Wales about receiving a "rollicking" from Martin Johnson for his risky try-scoring dive, I'd wondered at his Paul Gascoigne-style daft-as-a-brushness. But he is more Peter Kay, really, if a comparison with a Boltonian is not upsetting for a Wiganer. "Mum's Scouse accent comes on strong when she's on the phone to my aunties and uncles," Ashton says. "She'd count herself a little bit Irish but she's Scouse – or maybe half-Wigan, she's lived there that long. I only had one grandmother, the other grandparents were gone before I got here. Though that's changing now, isn't it? We're living longer. That's why they're screwing us on the pensions, ha ha. I had a grandad who played Gaelic football. Or it might have been a great grandad. He was quite good." Ashton has a pet dog, Henry. What breed is it? "A bulldog." As English as it gets, then? "That was the whole point of it," he says.
The England team hotel is posher than Wigan, or almost anywhere. A five-minute drive takes you past the grand gates of Wentworth Golf Club and gleaming showrooms for Rolls Royce, Maserati and Ferrari. The sort of lifestyle Ashton had as a kid? "Not coming to five-star hotels like this," he says. "It was always 'load up the car and off to France or up to the Lake District'. Rugby wise, we got treated well at Wigan, don't get me wrong. But this is another level. I don't want to take it for granted or it might get taken away from me quickly."
Nevertheless, he feels settled. "I came in to the England squad a few weeks before I made my debut so it did happen slowly. But it's just getting better and better. If you'd seen us in training this week, we looked like we've been playing together for a few years, not one year. We all know what we're doing." A settled back line – Toby Flood, Shontayne Hape, Mike Tindall, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto have started eight of Ashton's 10 Tests with him – has helped. "Winning helps too," Ashton says. "It has a massive effect on your attitude to everything."
There have been losses of course. The All Blacks ran in two tries on Ashton's wing and the Springboks saw nothing of him after he was dazed by a bump on the head. Undoubtedlythere is plenty for Ashton to work on. Simon Danielli, the Scotland wing, attempted to divert the Tartan press and their swallow-dive bandwagon by suggesting Ashton leaves defensive gaps when he tracks the attack. Ashton dismisses that notion but he says: "Scotland have a point to prove after three defeats and there'd be no better place for them to do it than at Twickenham. We're not bothered about expectations, we just want to play well. Against France it was a slow game and the backs didn't get into it. We want to turn that around."
And if the Wiganer reaches his 24th birthday a fortnight on Tuesday as a Grand Slam winner, it would be a fine finish to his first year of union Tests. "I definitely prefer union to league now," Ashton says. "There's so much more of a tactical side, more that can happen in a game. It's much better."
England versus Scotland is on BBC1 from 2.30pm today
Go go go Calcutta
England 10 Scotland 8, March 1963
Three lovely dummies sold by Richard Sharp for an all-time great Twickenham try. Andy Hancock scored another belter against the Scots two years later.
So long ago Calcutta
England 12 Scotland 22, March 1983
Scotland's most recent win at Twickenham (above) and still their record score there. An England XV drawn from 13 clubs were well beaten and finished bottom of the Championship, one place below the Scots.
England 24 Scotland 12, March 1995
'He's missed it!' shrieked Bill McLaren in astonishment as a kick by Rob Andrew slid past the posts, but the fly-half booted seven penalties and a drop to seal a Grand Slam and deny Scotland the same prize.
Low blow Calcutta
England 24 Scotland 21, Feb 1999
Tim Rodber and Martin Johnson gave John Leslie – one of Scotland's three 'kilted Kiwis' – a knee in the back and a foot on the throat. Jonny Wilkinson, on his first Championship start, tackled superbly.
England 43 Scotland 3, March 2001
Iain Balshaw glided to two tries in England's biggest win over the Scots. Ten years on, Balshaw is fine-tuning his speech as best man at Mike Tindall's Edinburgh wedding.
Terrible at Twickenham: Scotland's woeful record
1983: England 12–22 Scotland 1985: England 10–7 Scotland
1987: England 21–12 Scotland
1989: England 12–12 Scotland
1991: England 21–12 Scotland
1993: England 26–12 Scotland
1995: England 24-12 Scotland
1997: England 41–13 Scotland
1999: England 24–21 Scotland
2001: England 43-3 Scotland
2003: England 40–9 Scotland
2005: England 43–22 Scotland
2007: England 42–20 Scotland
2009: England 26–12 Scotland
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