We’re go­ing to miss you Ash­ton, try scor­ing ace

The Rugby Paper - - European Champions Cup Final Verdict - BREN­DAN GALLAGHER

No one in­di­vid­ual ever wins a match for Sara­cens, it’s not how they go about their work, but it was slightly ironic that it was two play­ers – Chris Ash­ton and Alex Goode – who have been ex­iled from Test rugby that lit up their hard earned win over Cler­mont yes­ter­day.

On much the same theme Nick Aben­danon ex­pertly ap­plied the fin­ish­ing touches for Cler­mont for what must be a strong con­tender for the best try ever scored in a Euro­pean Cup Fi­nal.

The try-scor­ing ma­chine that is Chris Ash­ton must take pride of place with his crack­ing first half ef­fort – bril­liantly an­tic­i­pat­ing Goode’s clever grub­ber and win­ning the chase – con­sti­tut­ing a record break­ing 37th try in this com­pe­ti­tion.

Go­ing into the match Ash­ton was level on 36 with Vin­cent Clerc, a player he rather re­minds me of, and Brian O’Driscoll who saved some of his very best try scor­ing con­tri­bu­tions for Europe. English rugby is go­ing to miss Ash­ton when he de­parts for Toulon at the end of the month, even those who think they can’t stom­ach him.

Ash­ton was born to score tries and makes it looks de­cep­tively easy – yes­ter­day’s ef­fort was a case in point – which is one of the rea­sons why he is con­sis­tently un­der­es­ti­mated.

At Wi­gan he scored 30 tries in 52 ap­pear­ances, with Saints in the Cham­pi­onship he scored 39 in 25 ap­pear­ances, with Saints and Sar­ries he ranks se­cond in the all-time Premier­ship list on 80 tries in just 130 ap­pear­ances while he now stands alone on 37 in Europe’s Pre­mier com­pe­ti­tion. And of course there is the small mat­ter of 19 in 39 Eng­land Tests.

As a try scorer pure and sim­ple he has no con­tem­po­rary equal in this part of the world, the best English rugby has seen since Rory Un­der­wood, but there has al­ways been a dire re­luc­tance to ac­cept Ash­ton’s ge­nius and, it has to be ad­mit­ted, his way­ward­ness on oc­ca­sions.

The ten-week ban he re­ceived for al­leged il­le­gal con­tact with Ul­ster’s Luke Mar­shall last Jan­uary days af­ter be­ing named in Ed­die Jones’ first Six Na­tions squad was the death knell for his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer. I’ve viewed it 20 times or more in real time and have yet to be con­vinced. The ban for bit­ing last au­tumn – on slightly more com­pelling ev­i­dence – sim­ply con­firmed the ter­mi­na­tion of his Test ca­reer.

Through­out that ca­reer his mis­de­meanours seem to have been treated more harshly than other mis­cre­ants in­volved in sim­i­lar in­ci­dents. Ash­ton has al­ways seemed short of friends and sup­port­ers in the cor­ri­dors of power.

Putting his some­times spikey per­son­al­ity aside, that sus­pi­cion seems to come from two sources. First he is a Rugby League con­vert and there has al­ways been a slight bias against some of the League traits he brought with him. And se­cond he is an outand-out wing and Eng­land are of­ten wary of such a spe­cific tal­ent.

They want more. Since Un­der­wood’s days Eng­land of­ten pre­fer all-round back three play­ers who can dou­ble as full­back – Josh Lewsey, Jack Now­ell, An­thony Wat­son, Ja­son Robin­son, Mike Brown, Delon Ar­mitage – than spe­cial­ist try scor­ers and wings.

Yes­ter­day Ash­ton, in fact, demon­strated an im­pres­sive all­round game. One ef­fort­less take look­ing over his shoul­der from a Camille Lopez high ball was sheer class, while few wings in the game hit the ruck with more vigour and in­tel­li­gence. He came in off his wing con­stantly against Cler­mont to close the ball off or to add that ex­tra im­pe­tus needed to se­cure pos­ses­sion. There is no busier wing in world rugby.

It’s one of Rugby’s lit­tle ironies that the only Eng­land coach to trust Ash­ton was Martin John­son, sup­pos­edly the high pri­est of hard grind­ing per­cent­age no frills rugby. John­son, how­ever, knew from his early Le­ices­ter days – when the Un­der­wood broth­ers were in res­i­dence – that when you even­tu­ally achieve for­ward dom­i­nance what you need more than any­thing out wide are play­ers who will con­sis­tently and clin­i­cally con­vert those hard­earned chances.

It was Johnno who gave Ash­ton his one ex­tended run in an Eng­land shirt in 2010 and 2011 and the wing re­warded him with a bar­rage of tries.

In the ab­sence of any prospects of Test rugby – I won­der did the Lions even con­sider him when push came to shove – yes­ter­day was a match of Test match sig­nif­i­cance for Ash­ton and he demon­strated that he is still a player of Test match class.

As did Goode whose sump­tu­ous skills rarely fail to adorn a game and are in­vari­ably at the heart of ev­ery­thing good for Sara­cens. His timely in­ter­ven­tion and beau­ti­fully weighted kick set up Ash­ton in the first half and then he scythed his way through for the de­ci­sive score in the se­cond half.

No­body in English rugby looks more at ease on the ball amid the chaos of a big game and he, along with the rest of us, must shake his head in be­wil­der­ment some­times that he is con­sid­ered un­fit for Test rugby.

On what ev­i­dence pre­cisely? I seem to re­call he was voted Eng­land’s best player in the au­tumn Tests of 2012 when they beat New Zealand. Yes­ter­day he was one of the stand-outs, lack­ing in no depart­ment what­so­ever.

And ditto Aben­danon, whose time in France has seen him cut out the un­forced er­rors and mo­ments of fri­vol­ity that counted against him in Eng­land terms when he played for Bath. Ar­riv­ing in France at the age of 28 his game has im­proved no­tice­ably late in his ca­reer. And it was in pretty good nick to start with.

In Mur­ray­field he left us with two memories that will linger. Once thought of as pos­sess­ing a vul­ner­a­ble game de­fen­sively, he cov­ered across bril­liantly in the first half to smash Ash­ton to the ground when a try seemed cer­tain and then, in the se­cond, he read his col­leagues’ bold counter-at­tack­ing in­ten­tions and was on hand to take Paceli Yato’s clever pass. What a score.

All power to the trio’s woe­fully un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated tal­ent. Test ex­iles and ‘re­jects’ they might be, but in a fine game awash with classy in­ter­na­tion­als they were un­doubt­edly among the bright­est tal­ents on view.

Great Euro­pean try scor­ers: Vin­cent Clerc, left, and Brian O’Driscoll

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