Chris Ashton will have raw and compelling reasons to do well on England's forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand, the departure point for which is next Sunday's match with the Barbarians at Twickenham. The Northampton wing and Premiership Player of the Season lost his father Kevin suddenly to cancer earlier this month and said: "I'm sure he'll be watching down, and I hope I can keep on making him proud."
The funeral was at a Catholic church in the Ashton family's home town of Wigan last Monday and the following evening Chris publicly mourned his 55-year-old dad with a moving tribute as he collected his award at the Premiership's end-of-season dinner in London.
The audience of 500 in a West End hotel was more than 100 short of the congregation who had recalled Kevin Ashton's love of rugby: playing league at a young age for St Patrick's, then union for Wigan for many years and subsequently driving hundreds of miles a week to support his son.
"It's been an amazing week," said Chris, after a couple of days' further contemplation. "The award was a silver lining, I suppose, to a very dark cloud. It was that busy at the church, some people had to stand outside. It shows how much of an effect the man had on people and what a nice bloke he was. I'd speak to him about rugby on the phone every day, and for a person like that not to be in your life any more is going to be hard."
Ashton was excused England's three-day training session at Twickenham from Monday to Wednesday. But he will join the 44-man party tomorrow and hopes to face the Baa-Baas in what is likely to be a stronger England line-up than normal for the annual fixture, though lacking the seven Leicester players involved in Saturday's Premiership final.
The sight of a handful of Toulouse stars in Barbarian black and white offers another motivational poke in the ribs: Ashton's switchback England debut against France in Paris in March. A wonderful sharp pass to help create his club-mate Ben Foden's try was counterbalanced by a hasty chip gobbled up by full-back Clément Poitrenaud when Ashton – scorer of 16 Premiership tries this season – looked set for a try or a scoring pass.
Was it anything to do with being selected on the left wing, when he had played all season on the right? "You can't make that excuse," said Ashton. "Brian Smith [the England attack coach] asked me if I was fine to play on the left and I said I was. I was there to score tries and I had a chance and I didn't take it. Anything could have happened, I could have stepped inside and he [Poitrenaud] could have caught me. He read it incredibly well, he started running backwards before I even kicked it."
Ashton joined Northampton from Wigan's rugby league side in 2007 and, like Jason Robinson before him, he had to retrain his instincts – "It's only this year it's started to feel normal and natural to me" – but the plus side is an eye-catching desire to follow the ball. "Playing under the ball-carrier" is how one admirer, ex-England back Austin Healey, describes it.
Ashton said: "It comes from playing full-back in league, and watching Shaun Edwards from a young age at Wigan, seeing him score so many tries by just pouring through and always being the man inside. It's something that's definitely come across with me, that a lot of union players haven't got the hang of, or they are just too busy watching what's happening elsewhere."
His 16 tries were one short of the Premiership record, and while Ashton joked that a penalty try against Saracens when he was held back off the ball might be reallocated to him, the genuine disappointment was last Sunday's semi-final defeat by the same club. "I sat up till four o'clock on Sunday night, thinking about it. But you can forget where you've been – we were in Division One two seasons ago – and expect too much of yourselves, too soon. We'll sit back in a few weeks' time and realise that we won the LV= Cup, we beat Munster and got in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, we had the best defence and had the most wins in the league. And we'll be happy with what we did.
"You can't have everything at once. I don't like to make excuses but we were the only team who played every weekend with virtually the same team, and that is going to take a toll. Even if it's not in your head, your body is going to say 'no'. We were out on our feet having played a lot of rugby."
Ashton toured Australia and New Zealand with England rugby league's Under-18s. Now 23, he said: "Going across the world to Australia where England have only won twice is exciting. We've got five wings, all of them capped. Mark Cueto is a solid player and Dave Strettle has been playing well for Harlequins, so we'll have to see. I've only had one cap and I'm still just glad to be there."
Remembering Paris in the spring, he added: "I'd love to be in the same situation again, to see what would happen. Hopefully I'll get the chance."
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