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 on Saturday.
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, below, 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 out-and-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 full-back – 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 all-round 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 hard- earned 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.
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