Ashton offers solid case for defence to back up his try-scoring intuition
England wing has added a welcome facet to his game during his exile, says Kate Rowan at Twickenham
There was a neat touch of symmetry in how Chris Ashton, having not made a start for England in four years, returned against New Zealand, a side they had not faced in four years. In a game that will go down as starting so sweetly yet finishing so bitterly for England, Ashton, who has always made a habit of grabbing the headlines – good and bad – played an early starring role with the first try.
Returned from his season of exile in Toulon, and after just one appearance for new club Sale Sharks, where he scored a hat-trick against Connacht in the Challenge Cup, it was clear Ashton relishes the big moments.
The 31-year-old did enough with his cameo off the bench last week in the tight win against South Africa to cause Eddie Jones to have a “gut feeling” about starting him ahead of Jack Nowell and, within minutes of kick off, the hunch had been repaid.
After muscular support work from Ben Youngs, Ashton scored in the corner after shrugging off diminutive full-back Damian McKenzie.
There was, however, much more to the prodigal son’s Twickenham return than scoring his side’s opening try. It is clear his time on the COte d’Azur has made Ashton a more complete player defensively and while all the talk in the build-up to this game had been about his singular poacher’s touch, it was his savvy in keeping New Zealand quiet out wide that could perhaps more than anything keep the former Saracens man in the starting XV and closer to a ticket to Japan for the World Cup.
It was the old cliche of it takes one to know one, that Ashton may well have benefited from newly appointed England defence coach John Mitchell’s inside knowledge of how his fellow Kiwis play that led Ashton to stay particularly flat in defence.
At times, Ashton looked to be almost offside in how he kept track off New Zealand’s attackers, but you can’t help but feel the Kiwis would admire his wily ways. There was something about hovering on the line of what is right and evading referee Jerome Garces’s attentions that said as much as his try in terms of making a statement.
Also, in keeping with the “it takes one to know one” theme, Ashton forged bonds with former All Blacks such as two-time World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa in France, surely perhaps even by osmosis in training he picked up how best to stifle a New Zealand back line.
On both sides of half-time, the poacher turned gamekeeper with Rieko Ioane, the 21-year-old wonder wing who many predict will become the All Blacks’ record try-scorer. After 27 minutes, he pushed up to close down Ioane’s space before bolting back to beat mobile hooker Codie Taylor to Beauden Barrett’s grubber.
Again in the 58th minute, with New Zealand baying for blood at 15-13, Ashton rushed out of the line and McKenzie spilt the ball. Garces brought back play for a penalty and the visitors went ahead, but it could have been more if not for Ashton’s nous.
While Jones had spoken freely off the field about what Ashton can bring, the Australian was more coy in his assessment of Ashton’s performance in the aftermath of the game. “He’s got that keen sense of finding the line and when he gets half an opportunity, he takes it,” said Jones. And that was that.
But in how Ashton has turned around his reputation of something of a defensive flake to looking incredibly intelligent in all areas of his game, it should be a boon for England heading towards the World Cup.