After an annus horribilis, what now for Chris Ashton?
Chris Ashton’s latest brush with the law has put his future in doubt but he should stand and fight his ground – for his England place and not in disciplinary hearings
Journalists all around the rugby-playing globe were hunched over their laptops waiting for news of Chris Ashton’s disciplinary hearing to drop into their inbox on Tuesday. Then, at 11.50pm, the verdict dropped, and five-and-a-half hours staring at your laptop turned into five minutes of panic as hacks tried to turn the story round and catch the presses. That was that for us lot – Ashton got 13 weeks for getting his teeth stuck into Alex Waller and we got to go to bed.
Everyone was moaning about a late night but compared to some disciplinary hearings we, unlike Ashton, got off lightly but what does it mean for the 39-Test wing and his future? The smart money is on him staying exactly where he is and why wouldn’t you if you had just won the European and domestic double?
A few theories were doing the rounds immediately after the hearing. Ashton could bolt, throw the towel in with English rugby and decamp to France where his great mate David Strettle is playing for Clermont.
He could go back to where he came from and play rugby league again although this was ruled a non-runner almost immediately.
You would not blame him if he did either of the first two. In January he was banned for 10 weeks for the infamous incident with Luke Marshall when he was found guilty – in the pious phrase used in the laws – of ‘making contact with the eye area’ of the Ulster player. That ban was unlucky, the four-week one for hair-pulling in 2011 less so, and cost Ashton a potential place in the Six Nations as he had just been named in the provisional squad by Eddie Jones.
And now, with this latest ban you would not be amazed if Ashton has had a gutsful and really is ready to ply his trade somewhere else. A lot of people, who have never met Ashton, think he is a bit of a showboater and needs taking down a peg or two. I have met Ashton plenty of times professionally over the last eight or nine years, and that view is utter cobblers.
As Sarries’ director of rugby Mark McCall said: “When similar allegations are made against other people there’s not the same fuss and flurry.
“It’s obviously a serious allegation but it seems to follow him around. There’s nothing we can do about that but support our player. That’s what we’re doing.”
McCall was saying Ashton is a marked man and he probably is. The ‘Ash Splash’ does not endear him to opposition, or opposition fans, his variable tackling does not endear him to coaches and the fact that he is from the North of England and played league does probably not endear him to some in union. He is decent bloke but that might be enough to put anyone off and get packing their bags.
The RFU didn’t rate his account of the biting incident with Waller in the game against Northampton too highly either which led to his most recent ban.
The official account of the hearing has just been released and it states: “It is the panel’s view that what can be seen on the footage is the player taking the opportunity to bite the arm, which had lawfully come to be in the area of his mouth.
“The panel found the player’s version of why he was moving his head in a particular way, and the reasons why his mouth remained on the arm, less convincing.
“The panel concluded that the account from the player was very much less plausible.” In other words they don’t believe him.
Ashton has been largely pilloried on social media with many saying that to get done once is a mistake, but to get done twice is a habit but inside there is still an international winger waiting to come out again – so he should stay where he is and fight for his England place.
As it stands, according to the provisional Elite Player Squad that Eddie Jones announced on 1 August, and is expected to basically confirm on 30 September give or take the odd bolter, Ashton is behind Anthony Watson, Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni, Jack Nowell and Jonny May in the wings’ pecking order.
After turning down the Saxons trip to South Africa in the summer he is probably behind Christian Wade and Alex Lewington too but this is a bloke with 19 Test tries and he is still only 29. Ashton has been here before, remember.
He was out with the washing after the 2014 tour to New Zealand, on the fringes of the World Cup squad a year later – missing out on the first cut of the training squad – but got his way back into Jones’ line of vision. He can do the same thing again but this time really is last chance saloon.
Saracens will look after him – they look after all their players and that is why you don’t see too many blokes leaving there voluntarily – and Ashton could have a real crack at playing at the next World Cup. Why would you write off anyone who can finish like him?
McCall added: “I saw him handle what many believed to be an injustice after the Ulster game last year unbelievably well. As tough as it was to miss an England chance and 10 weeks of Premiership rugby with us he handled it brilliantly. I’ve really seen Chris Ashton grow as an individual in the four years I have known him.”
It is time for Ashton to grow as an individual in the eyes of Jones – he has a bit of time left but not too much but with his eye for a chance you would not back against him taking it.