By Mitch Phillips
BAGSHOT, England (Reuters) – Chris Ashton has taken the long way round back to the England team but timed his return just right as he prepares to start his first international for four years against New Zealand in the most eagerly awaited fixture of Eddie Jones’s tenure.
Following his conversion from rugby league in 2007 Ashton was at the peak of his powers when he delivered a classic “Ash Splash” try in the famous 2012 Twickenham victory over the All Blacks as his ability to “sniff a try” from all over the pitch made him one of the most prolific players in the game.
In the following years, however, his international star began to wane as a combination of injury, suspension and coach opinion meant he dropped down the pecking order and he missed the 2015 World Cup, having scored six tries in the 2011 edition.
Still a devastating finisher as he helped Saracens to European and domestic glory, two lengthy bans hamstrung his England hopes in 2016 and he appeared to have called time on international rugby when he rejected an invitation to tour with the second-string Saxons and then joined French club Toulon in 2017 – ruling him out of England selection.
However, Ashton decided he still wanted a tilt at the 2019 World Cup, cut short his French sojourn and returned to his northern English homeland to join Sale this year.
As a nudge to Jones, Ashton lined up against England for the Barbarians in a non-cap match in May and scored a spectacular hat-trick as the touring team handed out a 63-45 thrashing.
His hopes of building on that with a strong showing for Sale were derailed before the season had begun, though, as he incurred a seven-week ban for a dangerous tackle in a friendly game.
Jones kept him in his training squad for the November internationals though and, in his only appearance for his new club so far, he scored a hat-trick of tries.
Initially overlooked for last week’s game against South Africa, the 31-year-old was added to the bench after Manu Tuilagi withdrew and Ashton raised one of the biggest cheers of the day when he entered the fray 15 minutes from the end of England’s 12-11 victory.
Jones obviously enjoyed the cameo too as on Thursday he named him to start against New Zealand, with Jack Nowell dropping to the bench.
The coach played down the switch, insisting it was merely a “change of order”, but that won’t stop Ashton enjoying walking out with the number 14 shirt on his back.
“History tells you that New Zealand win most of their games in the last 20 minutes, so which one is more important this week, the starter or the finisher?” Jones said.
“But Chris can sniff a try from anywhere. To beat New Zealand you have got to score tries. He’s in good form and has looked sharp, so we’ve given him the nod to start.”
Jones said that attempting to coach free-roaming players such as Ashton would merely “stuff them up”.
“You just give them a free rein, give them a framework to operate in, make them feel good about themselves, make sure they’ve got a smile on their face and away they go,” he said.
Ashton is invariably one of the more upbeat players in camp but Jones said his long and varied disciplinary rap sheet worked against him in terms of selection.
“If he hadn’t got into so much trouble he’d have played a few tests already,” he said. “He’s always up to no good. Wherever there’s trouble, there’s Ashton. How many times couldn’t we pick him because he’s been suspended?
“Now he’s got an opportunity to play a big game on Saturday.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond and Toby Davis)