Is Ashton heading for a fall?
The wing could benefit from Saracens' strong team spirit but his membership of the awkward squad is a growing concern
Chris Ashton can barely score a try without annoying someone – in his time as England manager, Martin Johnson struggled to stomach the horizontal high jinks that accompanied his box-office wing's touchdowns – so it was asking a bit much of the Lancastrian to switch clubs in the trouble-free manner generally associated with rugby union's fledgling transfer market. When Ashton's end-of-season move from Northampton to Saracens was confirmed yesterday, you could almost hear the words "good riddance" in the air at Franklin's Gardens. The man may be a force of nature, but he is also one of the natural-born-awkward brigade.
Certainly, he is incapable of spinning a yarn that those in full possession of their faculties might believe. Like Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, supremely gifted footballers with a well-developed talent for making life messier than is strictly necessary, Ashton tends to answer a straight question with a straight answer, even when he is trying to do the opposite. He may have intended to go down the "options open" route when pressed on his move earlier this month, but he ended up admitting that he would be on his way. Standing behind him as he did so was his boss, Northampton's director of rugby, Jim Mallinder. The grin on his face told those who spotted it that he, for one, was losing precious little sleep over the issue.
Mallinder played an assured hand throughout this saga, pointing out that Ashton is not the only half-decent finisher at the club and reminding listeners that rugby is not a game that can be played successfully by those who no longer care for the place where they happen to be playing it.
"We're only interested in people who are interested in being here," he said. "It seems to me that as far as Chris is concerned, his head is elsewhere."
This philosophical approach – underpinned by the fact that in Vasily Artemyev, Jamie Elliott and Noah Cato Saints do indeed have some useful alternatives – did not, apparently, prevent Mallinder engaging in a frank exchange of views with Ashton during training on Wednesday. It is widely assumed that when the side for tomorrow's Heineken Cup meeting with Munster in Milton Keynes is named, a certain England international will not be in it. Given that Ashton had been told his fortune by Mallinder's principal assistant, the former Test hooker Dorian West, following a below-par performance before Christmas, a parting of the ways was probably best for all concerned.
Unfortunately, Ashton is heading for rivals who have worked their way deep under Northampton's skin. It is the equivalent of Rooney leaving Manchester United for Liverpool. Saints fell out with Saracens spectacularly two seasons ago, when the Watford-based side talked the Tongan prop Soane Tonga'uiha into taking up residence at Vicarage Road. After a highly entertaining public spat, Tonga'uiha opted to stay put. Bad blood remains, even now.
Yesterday, Ashton took to Twitter – nothing becomes a modern player like the manner of his social networking – to say that it would be "all about Saints" until the end of the season. It might be all about watching Saints from the stand, if Mallinder chooses to hand the No 14 shirt to someone with a Northampton future.
Unusually, given their recent history of combative public declarations on a variety of topics, Saracens were positively coy about signing their man on a long-term contract. "We are obviously especially delighted, but for now Chris remains a Northampton player," said an unnamed spokesman for the club. "Out or respect for Saints, Saracens will not make any further comment on the matter." Truly, there is a first time for everything.
There is no denying Ashton's impact since switching from rugby league. Ninety tries in 106 appearances for Northampton is mirrored by his performances at Test level: 18 internationals since the spring of 2010, 15 tries. But this is only half the story. Just as important as Ashton's ability as a finisher is his unique approach to the wing's role – an approach based on roaming the field in search of mismatches against forwards. He spends more time off his wing, close to rucks and mauls, than any wide player in the sport, with the possible exception of the fine Wallaby Digby Ioane. It is not stretching a point to say Ashton has trans-formed wing play in European rugby.
But while he can be gloriously off-message – his brusque refusal to engage with the corporate razzmatazz accompanying England's kit launch for the World Cup was as welcome as it was funny – he also has a knack for landing in the soup. Twice in two seasons he has tangled with the Tuilagi brothers at Leicester, and if he was more sinned against than sinner on the first occasion he was at fault the second time and picked up a four-week ban as a consequence. More seriously, he was implicated in one of the more damaging disciplinary incidents that scarred his country's campaign in New Zealand.
Saracens, the English champions, have built an extraordinary team spirit under the captaincy of Steve Borthwick – a spirit based on a fierce sense of togetherness, a strong work ethic and a complete commitment to collective discipline. They could be the making of Ashton. But he is leaving behind the club who made him what he is. The fact that Northampton are not shedding tears suggests he has some way to go in reaching his potential.
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