LONDON — Amid a complicated relationship with international rugby and a spell out of sight in France lies one simple reason why Chris Ashton is back in the England team to play the All Blacks: his ability to score tries.
In these days where props are expected to have the ball-handling skills of outside centres, and those in the midfield are expected to jackal like an openside, there is a wonderful simplicity about Ashton’s game and why Eddie Jones likes him.
“Chris can sniff a try from anywhere,” Jones said on Thursday. “To beat New Zealand you have got to score tries.” He wants to see the Ashton of 2010 and 2011 in an England shirt, the Ash-splashing winger who had Twickenham in the palm of his hand.
But then there is the Ashton of the wilderness years from 2014 to 2018 who became so disillusioned with English rugby that he took up a contract with Toulon, closing the door on his international eligibility.
Now he is back in England with Sale, back for England on the wing, back sniping and waiting for opportunities to bring Twickenham to its feet again.
Ashton boasts a Faustian unpredictability. During last season where he broke the Top 14 scoring record with 24 tries in 23 games for Toulon, a quick browse on YouTube showed four intriguing titles. First there is a video labelled “Ash Splash returns as Ashton darts in from 80m for Toulon,” then another referencing a remarkable try-saving tackle. Then on the flip side you have one labelled “epic Chris Ashton fails against Lyon” and one pointing to a sliced clearance in his own dead-ball area which the opposition scored from.
Though his mission on Saturday is simply to score tries for England, it his inherent mortality and unpredictability which Jones quite likes.
There are the intangible bits of Ashton’s game where he can see the smallest gap and score and then his mischievous nature which sees him fall on the wrong side of the rugby law and cop suspensions. Every time he got close to England selection while at Saracens, he was suspended and then, after his one-year sojourn on the south of France, the start of this campaign was again disrupted through a ban.
Now, though, is a decision based on gut instinct from Jones, given Ashton has played just twice this season after that ban. Against Connacht in the Challenge Cup, on his Sale debut, he scored a hat-trick. Then he got 20 minutes as a replacement for England against South Africa last weekend.
Jones has long been an admirer of Ashton and he slots into the gap marked ‘x-factor’ within his plans for the Rugby World Cup. He wants these match-winners like Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly to be fit and firing in Japan. But while Jones believes these November internationals, in the long scheme of things, matter very little it will give him the chance to distinguish – through his own, unique criteria – who are Test players, and who are mere solid club players.
When Ashton left for France at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, he said he was “glad” he could forget about England. In 2016, he was omitted by Jones for their end-of-year tour of Australia, despite having scored a heap of tries for Saracens. He was told his tackle-completion rate wasn’t good enough. Ashton was offered a place on the Saxons tour of South Africa, an invitation he politely declined. Back then you could have been forgiven for thinking this was the final nail in Ashton’s England coffin and he would be thrown into the same pot as talents like Carl Fearns and Danny Cipriani who, had cards fallen in a different order, could have had far more caps than those lining their mantelpieces.
Jones does not talk about those abroad. He can’t pick them, so what’s the point? To the world outside the camp he barely talks about those left out of the match day squad but internally, those are the players he speaks more to. He doesn’t even tell those players he has picked in the 23 for Saturday’s Test against All Blacks that they are in, he only talks to those omitted. So when asked how Ashton took the news of his inclusion, Jones said he had no idea whether he was excited or not.
While Jones was a face in the crowd when Ashton played for Toulon against Bath back in January, the first time the two properly spoke — and even this was a brief interaction — was when Ashton was on Barbarians duty in the summer. Jones said Ashton had a “glint in his eye” and that “indicated he wanted to come back to England”. That was during the week leading up to the England-Barbarians match. Ashton lit up Twickenham that scorching May day, scoring a hat-trick and picking up the man of the match award. England were heading on their summer tour of South Africa in turmoil, while Ashton was having a party at HQ. You could not have made it up.
Where previously he felt like, in his own words, “the door had been shut”, the hat-trick at Twickenham and his try-scoring form opened it again. Then came this summer’s move to Sale Sharks and with that a recall to the England squad, having featured just once in a group under Jones — his hopes of featuring in the 2016 Six Nations were scuppered by suspension, of course.
Through all this remained Ashton’s unique ability to score tries. Jones will want to see more than mere sniping from his winger, but if Ashton gets over the tryline on Saturday then his predatory instincts will back up Jones’ intuition.
Jones dismisses any significance in Ashton’s promotion over Nowell for Saturday’s game, constantly referring to the team as a 23-man effort, rather than just the players numbered 1 to 15. “It’s an order change,” Jones said. But as Ashton stands in that white shirt on the right wing, he will pause just a moment to take stock of a remarkable turnaround in international fortune.
And then as the ball’s hoisted into the air, it will be just like old times as he looks to get it and run like it’s 2010 all over again.