'Hot-headed' Ashton prepares to take out frustration on Wallabies
England back returns to side after missing Fiji match and says sitting it out was hard to take
Sixty minutes of one-sided rugby was just about all Fijian flesh and blood could stand at Twickenham last weekend, but the outclassed tourists from the South Seas were not the only ones who felt they could take no more as Charlie Sharples stretched England's lead to 42-5 with a quarter of the game left to play. Chris Ashton, the man forced to make way for Sharples after another of his regular brushes with the disciplinary class, had also seen enough.
"I was so frustrated, I just couldn't watch any longer," he said yesterday, revealing how he left his seat in the West Stand, headed swiftly for the car park, jumped behind the wheel and drove home to St Albans. "Don't get me wrong: I was pleased for Charlie," he continued. "But just sitting there watching tries being scored and not being involved… it had been a tough two weeks for me and I'd had my fill."
Tomorrow, there is potential for more frustration, albeit of a different kind, when the Wallabies come knocking on the red-rose door. Ashton has not scored an international try in nine games – the last time he celebrated a crossing of the opposition whitewash was in the World Cup pool game against Scotland in Auckland more than 13 months ago – and while he is happy enough to be back in England's starting line-up, the drought has left him feeling seriously parched.
"I'm not quite at the Mark Cueto stage, who was in a really bad place for a while," the Saracens back said with a malevolent grin, referring to a fellow England wing who also found tries hard to come by and failed to see the funny side of it – especially as Ashton was scoring for fun at the time and took great delight in mentioning it to his colleague at every opportunity. "I do think about it, though, and it's beginning to kill me."
Ashton's recall for the meeting with Australia was easy to foresee, even while he was serving his one-match "totting up" ban for a series of illegal challenges during his early-season Premiership appearances for Saracens. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, would have needed a very good reason to ignore the best finisher in the country, despite his temperamental foibles and failures of self-control – especially with the Wallabies in town. Ashton ran in his first Test try against Australia in Sydney in 2010, and his most memorable Test try against the same opposition at Twickenham later that year.
"That score is still a big focus for people," he said, recalling the joyous length-of-the-field romp that contributed handsomely to his side's 35-18 victory. "But they don't come along too often, tries like that, and I have a feeling things won't happen that way for me this weekend. There are similarities between the two games, however. We were quite a young side in 2010 and played with a 'no fear' mentality. It's the same this time. A lot of players are still in single figures when it comes to caps."
Lancaster is well aware of that fact: in confirming his largely unchanged line-up yesterday, he made a number of references to the hundreds of caps' worth of Test know-how that will underpin the Wallaby challenge. The coach needs his more battle-scarred foot soldiers – outside-half Toby Flood, prop Dan Cole, lock Tom Palmer and Ashton himself – to bring the best of themselves to this contest, especially when it comes to making correct decisions at important moments.
"We're working very hard on discipline," Lancaster said. "We don't want to be giving away cheap penalties, still less losing players to yellow cards." If he was thinking specifically of the scrum-half Danny Care's entirely avoidable trip to the sin-bin during the Fiji match, he was also aiming his comments at Ashton, who has proved alarmingly adept at putting himself on the wrong side of referees.
"Last week was a tough lesson for Chris," the coach went on. "You don't want to give away your international shirt, to give another player an opportunity. Part of his problem has been technical and part of it has been down to hot-headedness. His great strength is his competitive instinct: he's a winner and there are times when frustration kicks in. He needs to channel that frustration into positive action. It's a pretty simple message, but it is the message."
Whether or not Ashton takes it on board remains to be seen: he describes himself as "a lot older but not more sensible" when pressed on the question of his maturity, and the imminent confrontation with the high-calibre Wallaby back Digby Ioane, whose dismissive comments about England's "pretty" wings have been well reported recently, will reveal much about his current temperamental condition.
This much is clear: Ashton revels in his status as a top-class international wing and cannot bear the thought of being on the outside looking in. His character dictates that he must learn his lessons the hard way, but learn them he will. Either that, or Lancaster will look to more reliable alternatives and make no apology for doing so. The coach's cruel-to-be-kind handling of the errant Care has paid dividends, despite last weekend's visit to the cooler, and he will not hesitate to put his best wing through the same purgatory if he considers it necessary. If Ashton is back in the side for now, only he can ensure it stays that way.
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