The two sides meet for the first time in four years this Saturday with England looking to build on last weekend’s gritty victory over South Africa, though the challenge of trying to take down the world’s No 1 side without a number of their key players will prove a much more difficult proposition.
The 12-11 victory over the Springboks saw the likes of Mark Wilson and Brad Shields push their international reputations, but opposite them this weekend will be established names from the very top of the game in the likes of Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick.
Another name set to be included is that of Rieko Ioane, the dangerous wing who has scored 22 tries in just 21 Tests, having enjoyed a phenomenal years since leaving the Sevens circuit and making his first start against the British and Irish Lions last year.
“He’s in there with a group of them,” Ashton said of the best wings currently in the game. “They always have amazing wingers – Julian Savea before. He just seems to have carried on where Savea left off, scoring tries every game.
“He’s got pace to burn, he’s a big athlete. He’s got really good players inside him that get him the space. We’ll have to cut down the time and space he has on the ball.
“New Zealand have ball players across whichever 15 that’s playing. I don’t think you can focus on one too much. But yeah, when he has the ball you do have to watch out.
“With someone like Rieko, his transition from Sevens to 15s is incredible. You’ve just got to admire the athlete and the talent that he is.”
Having spent last season in Toulon as part of star-studded squad, Ashton found himself playing alongside All Blacks centres Ma’a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa. The pair decided to end their international careers in order to pursue lucrative moves to Europe – and they don’t come much more lucrative than Toulon – and it has enabled Ashton to gain a greater understanding of the All Black mentality that could come in handy this weekend.
But it also opened up the Kiwis to a region of rugby that gets little coverage on the other side of the world, and while rugby fans in the northern hemisphere are well aware of the threats that lie in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the same cannot be said the other way around.
“Speaking to guys like Malakai Fekitoa, he literally didn’t know what the Premiership was,” Ashton added. “He had no idea! He didn’t know what the European Cup was. So in answer to that, no!”
Ashton did clarify that Fekitoa’s knowledge may not be representative of the entire squad, adding “they obviously have a very good league out there and maybe our stuff is not shown on telly over there”.
The Englishman added his time at Toulon enabled him to see what made the New Zealand imports so good at what they do.
“It was nice to get an insight into how they behave and how they train,” Ashton said. “Playing with someone like Ma’a was good. He’s the ultimate pro. Even at 36, he was one of the best players week in week out. I took a lot from him. He wouldn’t let too much go but he was always last out at training. Even at his age, he always wanted to do extras which a lot of people don’t do at 36.
We seem to have the conversation about a lot of countries. They hold playing at Twickenham in high regard. It’s not happened with New Zealand for a few years now so it’s a great occasion.”
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