'We knew how dangerous he was but could do nothing to stop him'
Italy coach Nick Mallett admits 'outstanding' wing Ashton and team-mate Flood were just too good
Even in the throes of deepest sporting depression, the ever-urbane and enviably articulate Nick Mallett managed to play to his audience. Asked how good a right wing Chris Ashton, destroyer-in-chief of Mallett's team, might become if he continues to improve at the present rate, the Italy coach gave an immediate response. "I don't think Ashton will become a good player at all," he replied, to general astonishment. Then came the punchline. "He's already outstanding."
The South African has worked with his share of half-decent wings down the years: no one guides the Springboks to 17 straight victories, a world record-equalling feat, or takes Stade Français to two French club titles, without developing an acute understanding of who might be capable of what in the furthest-flung areas of a rugby field. Yet Ashton is giving Mallett and the rest of the elite coaching fraternity a fresh perspective on matters relating to the No 14 position. Indeed, the Azzurri boss cannot remember seeing a more instinctive finisher during the two decades he has spent in the back-room business.
"One of his strengths is the danger he creates when taking the inside pass," Mallett said. "We knew about this part of his game and worked hard on it, yet he still did it to us. It's hard to contain him in general play because he's always moving off his wing looking for a one-on-one with a tight forward who won't be able to handle his pace. He has a very good nose for that.
"He also works extremely well with people who know how to get on his wavelength. Toby Flood deserves great credit here. In the first two minutes of the game, we did most things right: we kept the ball, took it up the middle and moved it wide, played through a referee's advantage and looked as though we might achieve something. Then, we put in a chip, Flood ran back at us on an excellent angle and Ashton scored. We faced that threat all game and had no answer to it. They are both very, very good players who will trouble a lot of teams."
According to the public prints – not to mention the airwaves, which have been full of this stuff – Ashton is troubling Martin Johnson, the England manager, with his penchant for the "Ash Splash". Johnson is not a natural enthusiast for overt displays of showmanship, and should Ashton ever drop the ball while crossing the goal-line in the style of a low-flying aircraft with its wings pointing the wrong way, he will never be allowed to forget it.
But as things stand, the manager has matters of greater importance on his mind. "My discussion with Chris about this took up 0.1 per cent of our preparation time while accounting for 90 per cent of the media space. That's the way it works, it seems."
In his view, a rugby player has every right to enjoy himself on the field, provided he's up to scratch. If the precise form of enjoyment differs from environment to environment – what passes for fun amongst old Leicester forwards like Johnson might be considered spectacularly unfunny by the rest of the human race – who cares? The manager did tell Ashton that he considered summoning him from the field after the second of his Saturday "splashes", even though he had used all his replacements. This, however, was a joke. "At least, I hope it was," Ashton remarked afterwards. "It's hard to tell with that straight face of his."
Ashton was full of amusing little one-liners after becoming the first Englishman to bag four tries in a championship match since Ronnie Poulton ran rings round France in 97 years ago. Asked about his early spat with the Azzurri centre Gonzalo Canale immediately after scoring the opening try, the wing replied: "There was a lot of talk, but he was speaking in Italian while I was speaking in Wigan."
He then congratulated his fellow wide man, Mark Cueto, at finally crossing the line in England colours – Cueto last contributed to the scoresheet in 2009 – by embracing the spirit of ageism. "It's nice for him," he said. "He's getting on a bit, after all."
He also mentioned that on the long run-in for the opening try, he thought long and hard about whether to risk a swallow-dive. "I said 'eeny, meeny, miny, moe' to myself," he revealed. An interesting approach to be sure, but each to his own.
"Chris is a bit different," agreed Johnson, "and because of it, he makes a difference. When Jason Robinson first came into the England team, he brought something new to the team. We have that again now. It's important for people to enjoy what they do, to have some fun, but it's also important that they're good. Everything needs to be in balance."
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