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The Chris Ashton Dilemma

By: Nick Bentley

Key takeaways

– Ashton leading the way in support carries
– An option on the wing or at fullback?
– Can Ashton break the all-time Premiership record?

One of many dilemmas facing Eddie Jones ahead of announcing his latest England training squad is whether to retain Chris Ashton, as the wing serves his seven week ban for a tip-tackle.

In a bid to resuscitate his England career, Ashton cut short his brief foray into the TOP 14 and returned to the Gallagher Premiership with Sale Sharks for 2018/19.

The former rugby league player may have only had one season in the French top division but it was a memorable one, his tally of 24 tries set a new record for the competition and although the play-offs may not have gone as planned, there is no doubt his performances put him back on the radar of Jones, who recalled him for a pre-season training camp in August.

Ashton’s last England appearance came on their tour to New Zealand in June 2014 and in the four years since his debut in 2010 his name was always one of the first on the team sheet, with his impressive try scoring record standing at 19 five-pointers in 39 appearances. Injuries and bans played their part in the curtailment of this international career but in this blog we take a look at his on-field performance in isolation, to identify what makes him so special and what characteristics he shows that set him apart from the rest.

Besides his trademark ‘Ash Splash’ try celebration, the 31-year-old is most famed for his ‘try-poacher’ style of support play, always being in the right place at the right time. In the TOP 14 last season, Ashton made 156 carries, the 41st most of any player but 31 of those carries were support carries, five more than any other player and the highest ratio (20%) of anyone to make 100+ carries.

Take this a step further and we can see just how effective he is when he does pick the ball up on the shoulder of a team mate who has already broken the defensive line, an amazing 14 of his 24 tries came from these specific carries, no one else in the league scored more than six in this fashion, that is a try from 45% of his support carries, an astonishing rate.

Unsurprisingly maybe, seeing how often he employed the tactic, but Ashton made the most metres (431) from these carries of any other player in the TOP 14, in fact of any player in Europe’s top three domestic leagues.

So not only does Ashton have a distinct style of play but it is one he employs much more often and effectively than any other player in Europe. With the England squad suffering a rare dip in form as well as a spate of injuries does he offer a solution that no one else can?

Eddie Jones’ inclusion of Danny Cipriani on England’s summer tour to South Africa as well a variety of other headline-grabbing selections suggest that the Aussie isn’t afraid of mixing things up to find the right blend, whether he is ready to do that in more competitive games remains to be seen but Ashton’s re-inclusion prior to his ban definitely offers some hope.

In the table above, we compare the same ‘support carry’ statistics of players either in the current England squad or not considered due to injury/other situations. Interestingly the only other player to make any sort of impact in this specific facet of the game is another rugby league convert, Denny Solomona. It might be a simple skill but why aren’t other players looking to employ it?

Ashton’s time at Toulon in the league was split fairly evenly between the wing (835 mins, 10 tries) and fullback (948 mins, 14 tries), something that came as somewhat of a surprise having made just one of 131 Premiership appearances at fullback. Maybe this change of position gave him the impetus required to exploit the space available to him on the pitch and use his electric pace to outwit defences. The breakdown of the 14 tries he scored from support carries saw 10 come when playing fullback and four when on the wing, giving him a versatility option in a matchday squad, something Steve Diamond could utilise at Sale.

Having broken the seasonal try scoring record in France last year, his return to the action next month will put him back in the frame to break the all-time try scoring record in the Premiership. Tom Varndell (92) and Mark Cueto (90) currently lead the way but neither will be adding to their tally in 2018/19. This pits Ashton (80) in a head-to-head battle with Wasps’ Christian Wade (82) to top the charts. If Ashton can match his feat from last season then it will be he who is the first to 100 tries and takes the record, albeit with Wade presumably having a longer career ahead of him and the record his for the taking in years to come.

Somewhat interestingly only Ben Spencer (7) scored more tries from support carries than Wade (5) last season in the Premiership so maybe the flyer has picked up on what makes Ashton so special and should be on Eddie Jones’ radar himself.

Whilst many factors, including discipline, are taken into account when choosing a squad, it is difficult to argue that based on performance factors alone, Ashton has not made a compelling case for inclusion.