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Jeremy Guscott: Chris Ashton plays on the edge and sometimes falls off

Chris AshtonChris Ashton’s decision not to go with the Saxons to South Africa last summer was the biggest indication that his England days were pretty much over, and the 13-week ban he has just been given for a biting incident against Northampton last weekend has simply confirmed that.

I can understand Ashton not wanting to go with the Saxons last summer, especially if you’d proved yourself as an England player, and also proved your ability with your club, as he has.

Ashton was going to be in the England squad last season but for a harsh ban for making contact with the eyes of the Ulster player Luke Marshall, and going with the Saxons would not have proved anything to Eddie Jones about his ability.

However, the England head coach might have used it to see just how hungry he was to play for England.

Based on Ashton’s past record, Jones knows that he was ready to step into the England squad if needed, and I guess the trip to South Africa was a test set by the coach that Ashton wasn’t prepared to sit. Given the options Jones has on the wing, with Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Marland Yarde all in their early 20s, plus Jonny May and Semesa Rokoduguni also available, there is plenty of competition, as well as cover and support.

I don’t blame Ashton, because he hadn’t dictated to England. All he said was: “They know what I can do, and they know where I am if they want me.”

It’s interesting that his defence – which has been his main weakness at Test level – has improved. The best indication is that if Ashton’s defence was a glaring weakness the opposition would be looking to exploit it in every game Saracens play. Yet, he has not been a massive liability, and it has not happened.

Not many people are surprised by this latest ban, because Chris has a susceptibility to doing things in the heat of the moment – and forgetting the consequences. He has a strong competitive edge like most elite rugby professionals, but the line where you remain in control, or lose control, gets blurred more easily with him.

Most players do not get themselves into this sort of trouble, but, when you get situations like this charge of biting the Northampton prop, Alex Waller, the scrutiny is intense – as Dylan Hartley knows all too well. It’s right that the glare of the spotlight should be on it, mainly because we do not want it to happen often, or at all.

Ashton has said before he doesn’t know why it happens, and, whatever the provocation, he’s been found guilty by a disciplinary process which is pretty black-and-white. One of the words used in the panel’s summing up was that his explanation for his action was “implausible”, even though Waller’s arm was across Ashton’s mouth, and the prop appeared to be roughing him up a bit.

Ashton’s best course of action would have been to get up, stand up to the Northampton player without pushing him, and decide that if next time  Ashton found himself in a one on one mis-match against Waller wide on the flank, as happens sometimes, to burn him off with footwork and pace. I also think that Waller must be slightly embarrassed at complaining to the referee, although, if Ashton had been sent off, Northampton’s chances of winning would have been much stronger.

Ashton knows he’s a target because his fuse is short. Other players want to put him in his place to remind him not to get in other people’s faces. He is a guy who is on the edge when he plays, and sometimes he falls off it. The solution is to get some help, and to practise exercising self-control harder.

Although his disciplinary record is poor compared to most Premiership players, he’s not what I’d call a serial offender. I felt for him in the gouging incident in the European Cup, just as I did for the Argentina lock Mario Galarza in the 2015 World Cup.

However, this time Ashton made a bad decision. What he did was wrong, and he’s suffered the consequence. The reaction of clubs towards offenders is to look first at what a player brings on and off the field, and also whether they can be rehabilitated. If they don’t bring enough, and cannot be turned around, they’ll be moved on.

By the end of this ban Ashton will have had 23 weeks out of the game this year, but he has been a big part of Saracens success, coming back to help secure the double last season despite being out for 10 weeks. It is also interesting that Bath put up with a lot of players getting sin-binned and giving away penalties last season, but not many have been moved on.

Ashton did not fit into the culture that Stuart Lancaster put in place as England coach. But, even though Jones seems to like players with a bit of edge, and is prepared to disregard the past to find out for himself, it’s very unlikely Ashton will play for England again.

At 29, the only way I can see that happening is if there is an injury crisis on the wing. One thing Ashton can be sure of is that if he carries on scoring tries for Saracens when he comes back from the ban there will be no end to stories about the “wing England ignored!”

I’m convinced that Ashton is happy enough with his personality, and so are his friends and team-mates. I don’t ever remember hearing about any training ground fights involving him.

Something like the ‘Ash-Splash’ also tells you he’s happy in his own skin. He’s going to do it even though he knows that a display like that will antagonise the opposition. I’m not against someone who does that, and is prepared to deal with the consequences – and I don’t think Ashton shies away from that.

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