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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union -

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.

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