The journey back: Chris Ashton’s return and the challenges he must overcome
Chris Ashton returns to England's starting line up against the All Blacks this weekend after his season long sacking of Top14 defences. We take a look at his journey, and the key areas he will be looking to target in order to retain his place in the side.
Chris Ashton’s 95-metre rampant score during England’s 2010 victory over Australia eight long years ago must have felt like a previous life to the 40-times-capped England wing. A dream way to take your first international try, racing in from obscene distances touched by nought but grasping fingertips of would-be defenders is something that even front-rowers are guilty of fanaticising in a moment of weakness between scrum resets.
Two years shy of a decade and four clubs later, the self-confessed try-scoring addict will start an international fixture for the first time in four years, with England’s Aussie coach Eddie Jones letting the sage winger off the leash and into England’s starting lineup against the All Blacks on Saturday.
A (re)baptism of fire for Ashton, who squares up opposite the near superhuman presence of Reiko Ioane, who despite being just 21-years-old, has become the most devastating winger in world rugby.
It is the unavoidable nature of sport that draws the English to England’s surprise victory over New Zealand in 2012; a fixture in which Ashton played a significant role.
On that day in December, Ashton raced in for one of England’s three tries alongside the iconic figure of bullocking centre Manu Tuilagi – who has failed to return to full fitness in time for the weekend’s reunion - celebrating the score with his trademark ‘Ash Splash’, putting the home side ahead by eleven points once Owen Farrell had duly slotted the conversion.
Despite the role he played in felling the World Champions, Ashton went on to start a meagre nine Tests over the following two years, with a further four years passing by before he would chase the first ball of the day whilst donning the rose.
Out of favour with Stuart Lancaster and unavailable to Eddie Jones through a mixture of suspension and the overseas selection policies, Ashton’s start this weekend is sure to be savoured.
Having made the decision to take a move over the Channel, Ashton went about filling the void left by his England exclusion with a season-long sacking of Top14 defences, breaking the league’s record for scores in a single season at the first attempt. The former Saints and Saracens man claimed 22 tries for Toulon, surpassing Napolioni Nalaga’s 21 nine years previously, and sending a firm message to Eddie Jones.
He went on to reinforce this point by collecting a hat-trick during the Barbarians’ route of England at Twickenham.
A return to the Premiership with Sale Sharks, likely influenced by a quiet word from Jones following the Barbarians fixture, saw Ashton return to contention, leading him to last weekend’s hungry looking bench appearance against the Springboks and elevation to a startling return.
Not quite the traditional fairy tale, but a feel-good story all the same.
Ashton’s importance in the latest All Blacks clash and the challenge he must overcome
While Ashton likely allowed himself a moment's unbridled celebration following his return to the England fold, he is sure to be consummately focused on delivering a good outing this weekend. A convincing performance would go some way towards his goal of cementing himself into the national side’s matchday squad in the lead up to, and duration, of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
So like the man from Wigan, we turn to focus on the exactly what he must do this weekend to both further his England return, and aid in England’s attempt to overturn the back-to-back world champions on Saturday.
Whether it’s Ben Youngs rocketing the ball over the ruck from a box-kick or Owen Farrell sending the oh-so-familiar cross-field bomb, England’s wingers have always been heavily relied upon for their ability in the air. Pressurising their opposing wingers into making mistakes or regaining possession with 20+ metres field advantage has always been one of the key pillars in which Jones achieved any and all success with England.
Without a doubt, the 31-year-old’s nose for a support line will have been why Jones opted to bring Ashton in from the cold, but he must prove to be the equal of Jack Nowell in the air if the Cornishman is to be kept at arm’s length and on the bench.
With Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Nowell all assured under the high ball following periods both past a present at 15 and the strides Jonny May has made to become one of the most effective men in the England camp in the air, it would not be surprising to see Ashton in a rather reserved running role at Twickenham, with Jones demanding consummate solidarity in the aerial battle.
Aside from the usual coffee club meetings after training, likely hosted by Daly, Ashton will have to know the tells and running tendencies of specific teammates like the back of his hand. Most notably, centres Ben Te’o and Henry Slade, blindside flanker Brad Shields and fullback Elliot Daly.
Ashton’s score against New Zealand in 2012 came as a direct result of tracking one of Tuilagi’s line breaks. However, the closest thing England currently have to Tuilagi is fellow League convert, Te’o. While the New Zealand-born, Samoan Ruby League international is not a like-for-like replacement for Tuilagi when it comes to explosive carrying, his bulk and penchant for an offload could set Ashton up one or two tasty opportunities.
In contrast to Te’o, the silky smooth playmaking of Slade could also set up Ashton for potential moments of magic. Last week, May narrowly missed out on an early score after Slade’s grubber beat the Leicester winger to the touchline and the outside centre’s physicality in the contact area has notably improved over the last two seasons. Another man Ashton must develop a lightening-fast understanding with his midfielders if he is to help in the attempt to fell the All Blacks.
Blindside flanker Shields and fullback Daly offer slightly different opportunities for Ashton to receive the final scoring pass. If not for losing the ball into touch less then a metre from the line last weekend, Shields may well have put Ashton over for a score by the corner flag in the dying minutes, while Daly has proven that when presented with the opportunity, he has the pace and footwork to make significant ground, draw defenders and find his man out wide; even if this was not the case last weekend.
Ashton’s ability to read and track the game is well known and an the obvious point of difference, but if he is unable to prove himself in the air and cannot develop an understanding with the men most likely to capitalise on New Zealand’s 12-man defensive line, using three players in the backfield in hopes of a counter-attacking opportunities, his return to the starting XV could be short-lived.