The most alarming thing about Chris Ashton’s mild disagreement with his opposite number Benjamin Fall at the end of last weekend’s Six Nations match at Twickenham was not that the England wing lost his rag with the Frenchman in the first place, but that he could not hit a 6ft 1in, 15st-plus static target with a rugby ball from a distance of 18 inches. If one moment encapsulated the current state of Ashton’s fortunes, this was it: a falling-out with Fall that ended in a pratfall.
“He’d been trying to get me going the whole game,” the Saracens player said this week. “At the end, he tried to drag me back by the neck and I thought I’d pop the ball up to him. I didn’t think it would cause a scuffle.” If this was Ashton’s definition of “popping the ball up”, it is little wonder that he gives precious few scoring passes. In reality, he threw the ball at his opponent’s head in a fit of irritability … and missed. In so doing, he conjured memories of the hapless centre-forward on Fantasy Football League who, on being invited by his manager to discuss his inability to shoot straight, tries to add a sugar lump to his coffee and finds the saucer instead.
England’s coaches, from Stuart Lancaster down, are worried about their right wing. They are not in a blind panic, but they are feeling uneasy. Ashton was hardly alone in messing up a tackle on Wesley Fofana as the Tricolore centre set sail on his try-scoring run down the left six days ago – it was the worst collective red-rose flap since the days of Jonah Lomu – but his attempt was limp in the extreme, and following his frailties against Ireland in the previous match, it was a bad moment. Just at the moment, it is not obvious that he is worth his place in the starting line-up.
In public, Lancaster is defending his player. “Obviously, Chris was as disappointed as anyone by the way Fofana scored that try,” the head coach conceded, “but after chatting with him before the match and going through various bits and pieces, I thought some aspects of his game were better: his kick-chase, his back-field management. Also, I think he’s been a little frustrated because we haven’t put together the kind of multi-phase possession that allows him to get his attacking game going.”
So far, so supportive. But Lancaster also made a point of mentioning a number of uncapped wings currently making progress at club level, from the sharp-finishing Christian Wade of Wasps and the powerful Marland Yarde of London Irish to the electrifyingly quick Jonny May of Gloucester and the workaholic Tom Biggs of Bath. “I think there are wings in the Premiership who are really challenging,” he said. “It’s an area where I’ve been keen to see more strength in depth and that’s beginning to develop now. I think the summer tour of Argentina will be an interesting opportunity for a number of people.”
Until now, it has been barely possible to imagine England willingly going into a Test match without Ashton, whose strike rate stands at something better than a try every two games. But he is going through a lean spell attacking-wise – he has scored only twice since Lancaster took over the red-rose reins, 14 matches ago – and is in a very funny place indeed when it comes to the defensive chores. The first problem is as general as it is personal, for no England wing has had much of a look-in of late: during Lancaster’s stewardship, Manu Tuilagi has scored as many tries as all the wide men put together. The second? That may be down to a loss of confidence, born of the fact that Premiership referees took a dim view of Ashton’s tackling technique in the early part of the season.
Interestingly, Ashton himself buys both of these arguments. “Whenever we make a lot of line-breaks as a team, I like to think I’ll put myself on the end of them,” he remarked, confirming Lancaster’s suspicions about the source of his frustration. “It’s not really happening at the moment, so I’m like a dog chasing a ball. I’m desperate to get involved, but I’m chasing too much. As for the tackling – well, I can’t shoulder-charge any more, can I? They’re not even allowed to do it in rugby league.”
He also makes the point that since Alex Goode, his current club-mate at Saracens, replaced Ben Foden, his old club-mate at Northampton, in the No 15 shirt, life in the England back three is not as it once was. “The dynamic has changed, definitely,” he admitted. “Alex and Ben are completely different players. Ben would stand out wide and run, creating stuff that way. Alex has played a lot of rugby at outside-half and finds a place for himself in the game in other areas. It’s up to me to adjust to the way Alex plays.”
Yet for all his confessional talk, Ashton does not consider himself to be off-colour or out of form. “Apparently, I’m playing badly,” he muttered in an acidulous tone. “I don’t really see that, to be honest. I feel there has been too much focus on one missed tackle against France. Yes, I raced up and gave an outstanding player the time to use his footwork on me. He caught me in a compromising position. He’ll do that to others.
“This criticism is new to me and I don’t really know where it’s come from. When people say these things, it hurts. It’s not as if I see myself as an automatic choice for England, or that I think I can sit back on things that happened two years ago and be done with it. One hundred per cent, I don’t look at it that way. I’m my own worst critic, because this means a lot to me. People see me as this happy-go-lucky character, but I’m not happy-go-lucky when it comes to my rugby. When it comes to training and playing, I’m a completely different person. I know what I need to do.”
It was an illuminating response, partly an exercise in bullish self-defence and partly a cry for help, and it exposed the raw nerve of a high-calibre player struggling in a British and Irish Lions year. If Ashton cannot be certain of starting against Italy when the Six Nations resumes next weekend – Lancaster himself has raised the possibility of running Tuilagi on the wing, which is where one of his coaching mentors, the former England coach Brian Ashton, feels he might be most productively deployed – he must be even less sure of his chances of touring Australia under Warren Gatland this summer.
Wing places against the Wallabies will be at a premium: George North and Alex Cuthbert, the two Welshmen, are both pushing hard for a touring spot and it may well be that the first of them is already inked in. Sean Maitland, the New Zealander who recently declared for Scotland, patently knows what he is doing, while Tim Visser, the Dutchman who recently declared for Scotland, looks every inch a Lions candidate. There is also a bandwagon in support of Simon Zebo of Ireland, who does things differently to every other wing in Christendom. If the Munsterman is fit, he’ll challenge.
All things considered, then, the next few weeks will be the most important of Ashton’s career to date. In one sense, he is fortunate: even if Lancaster goes with someone else against the Italians, he will not be out of sight or out of mind for long. The England coaches will probably feel they need him in Wales, when the Six Nations title – and, almost certainly, the Grand Slam – will be at stake. After that, Saracens have a run of top-of-the-bill fixtures, both domestically and in Europe.
But when a player is down on his luck, down on his confidence and struggling for an even break, big games pose big challenges. Ashton, an uncomplicated sort, will play his way out of the malaise sooner or later, but with Lions selection looming, he does not have a whole lot of time on his side. Maybe Gatland, natural communicator that he is, will sit him down and talk it through over a cup of coffee. In which case, he should steer clear of the sugar bowl.
Stat’s a fact! Ashton in numbers
2010 Year Ashton made his England debut, a 12-10 defeat in France
2 Tries scored in his last 15 England matches, after scoring 15 in his first 17 appearances
20 Points scored on his first appearance against Italy – going over four times in a 59-13 win in 2011