I am interested to see that a namesake of mine – my surnamesake, to be precise – has been voted Premiership Player of the Year, not least because he operates in a position that rarely gets a show when the glittering prizes are handed out.
I share one or two other things with Chris Ashton, the Northampton wing: we come from a similar sporting background, from the same corner of north-west England. It seems to me that he is very much a product of his rugby upbringing and, if he is handled correctly, he could make a considerable impact at international level over the next few years.
If I'm honest, I thought Schalk Brits of Saracens would win the big award, for the South African has spent his first season in English rugby redefining the hooker's role. We have occasionally seen his like before: Phil Greening, the highly gifted English front-rower blessed with the skills of an outside centre, was blazing this same trail a decade or so ago. But Brits is the man of the moment as far as footballing tight forwards are concerned and he deserves all the praise he continues to receive.
By contrast, a wing like Ashton has only fleeting involvement in proceedings, living as he does on the extremities. Yet he does not fit the mould of the traditional wing, largely because he has brought a rugby league mentality to the union game. The former Great Britain league coach Brian Noble, who worked with Ashton at Wigan, says that while he has the pace and counter-attacking instinct to succeed at the top level, it is his ability to respond to his own team's attacking alignment while deciphering the opposition's defensive organisation that sets him apart.
This is quite right. He is an outstanding support runner, who was always going to prosper in a team committed to attacking rugby and containing two or three players capable of creating space. Northampton provided him with precisely this over the course of the season and were rewarded with a try-scoring rate far in excess of any other wing in the country.
When I watch Ashton play, my mind drifts back to another wing lured from rugby league: Jason Robinson. They are not peas in a pod, far from it, but the last thing we needed to do with Jason was "unionise" him, and the same goes for Ashton. When I first worked with Jason during his brief stay at Bath – he was still a league professional with Wigan at the time, but he fancied a taste of something different – someone said to me: "I suppose the first thing you'll have to do is sort out his technique in contact." To which I replied: "That's the last thing, actually, because no one ever tackles him."
More snippets of Jason. When we first selected him at full-back, we asked the team to assess the potential consequences of the move. There was a deathly silence, broken only when Jason said: "I'll tell you this much: if the opposition kick the ball to me, I'm not going to kick it back." You could see his point. Why do the things your opponents most want you to do? Some time later, during my second spell coaching Bath, one of our international front-rowers came to me before a game against Sale, for whom Jason was then playing, and saying: "I had a terrible night. I dreamt Robinson had the ball, and was running at me in open field." This was the effect he had on people.
The moral of these stories is that unique talents need to be nurtured, not coached. During his time at Sale – and, indeed, his time with England – there were points when it looked like Jason might have his wings clipped. To his great credit, he fought the battles and won them. I hope Ashton shows the same determination, although I can't imagine Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby at Northampton, will try to straitjacket him.
Like Jason, he is most effective when he has licence to roam the field and pop up in unexpected positions from phase play. His speciality is what I call "blindsiding" the defence, by which I mean appearing as if out of nowhere while the opposition are ball-watching. When he does this late, with his dangerous combination of pace and footwork, he gives people no time to react.
Smart coaches will be looking very carefully at the tapes and working out ways of cramping his style next season, and I have no doubt that there will be a dozen plans aimed at stopping him. But it is one thing hatching a plan. Putting it into effect is another thing entirely. As long as he is allowed to play with freedom, to use his instincts to pick the right times and the right places to get involved, he will continue to score tries and win matches.
Saracens can spring surprise if they're bold
The champions of England will finally emerge at Twickenham this evening and, if you press me for a prediction, I'd have to say that it's difficult to see beyond Leicester, with their big-match experience, their suffocating set piece and their winning mentality. Yet for me, the intrigue surrounds Saracens and their approach to the match. I'm sure they'll attempt to use the ball productively, whatever their position on the field: the boldness of their ambition has paid handsome dividends in recent weeks, so there is no point in taking the conservative approach now. If they are accurate – and accuracy is the key against a side like Leicester – we could see a surprise on a scale that suits the occasion.Reuse content