Chris Ashton recognises the benefit of the “mental rest” he gained by missing the summer tours by the Lions and England – he was not selected and rested respectively – even if the rejection upset the Saracens wing. Now it has taken a new season in which his club cannot stop winning for him to enjoy his rugby again.
Ashton scored a comparatively modest 10 tries for Saracens last season after moving from Northampton and only twice in 16 England appearances since the 2011 World Cup. His try on Saturday that helped break Harlequins’ resistance in Sarries’ 22-12 win at the Twickenham Stoop was his second of the current campaign.
“There was a point when I got a bit down about it,” said Ashton. “You want to be involved [in internationals] and it was just time to sit at home and let other lads have a go. Mike Brown [a full-back] was playing on the wing for England last year so the summer gave Stuart [Lancaster, the England coach] a good chance to look at other lads and I thought they played well and it was tough to watch. I have tried hard to develop the all-round game and not just be there for scoring tries.”
A cautionary note: England in the autumn may not play the same way as Saracens, and it is not certain that Ashton’s defence – or indeed that of his positional rivals Marland Yarde and Christian Wade – is up to top Test level. For now, Saracens are growling contentedly as London’s top dogs.
This was their fourth win in a scintillating September, at an average more than 34 points a match and it was of little importance that they were unable to add another try bonus to the ones against London Irish, Gloucester and Bath. The likes of Leicester and Northampton in the Premiership and Toulouse in the Heineken Cup may say otherwise, but Saracens’ brute power and 80-minute fitness are currently irresistible.
Ashton explained the impact of a re-think at the club prompted by last spring’s semi-final knockouts by Northampton and Toulon. “The energy in the team is outstanding and it lifted again in the second half,” he said. “You could see Quins in the second half, it was tough for them. Our forwards were working so hard. Billy Vunipola and James Johnston have added weight and carrying power. It’s changed, getting lads in motion a bit more, getting them on the front foot, and the way we are attacking is much better than it was last year.”
Neither team was at full strength and Saracens might have prospered further if the injured midfielders Charlie Hodgson, Brad Barritt and Joel Tomkins had been available. But Owen Farrell, Duncan Taylor and the out-of-position Chris Wyles did their bit in creating Ashton’s 51st-minute try that put Saracens 13-12 ahead after Nick Evans’ four first-half penalties for Harlequins to Farrell’s two. And every Saracens back must have been grateful to their wolfish breakaway forwards, among whom Jacques Burger, has more stitches above his left eye than in a patchwork quilt.