Not good enough when it matters
January 29, 2014
Chris Ashton celebrates scoring against Argentina in November ... but will there be any more international tries? © PA Photos
Chris Ashton won't admit it, but he might be as relieved as many England fans are that he won't be in Paris on Saturday. His exit from international rugby has been painfully drawn out, in contrast to his sparkling arrival on the scene.
At 26, he is too young to be written off entirely, but it will take a calamitous set of circumstances for him to be recalled for next year's World Cup. Yarde, Wade, Foden, May and Nowell have now all overtaken him in the wingers pecking order. Others are close.
One of sport's enduring mysteries is how some outstanding domestic players perennially under-achieve for their country. Mark Ramprakash (35,659 first class runs, 114 centuries, average 53.14) couldn't cut the mustard as an England player (52 matches, 2 centuries, average 27.32). His county statistics merited England selection for several years after the selectors realised that something intangible prevented him succeeding at the top level.
Similarly, Ashton's recent form for Saracens has been good enough to earn him selection this week, had he never played for England before. But he has, and Stuart Lancaster knows what Ashton now offers England is not what he does for Saracens. As with Ramprakash, domestic form counts for nothing on international day.
Some say it's down to over-coaching paralysing the instinctive play that made us all sit up when he burst on the scene four years ago. Since the tries for England dried up he has been 'trying too hard' or thinking too much, causing the minute hesitations that make the difference between beating an opponent on the outside and being unceremoniously thumped into the advertising boards.
His detractors point to the penchant for celebrity lifestyle, the arrogance of the 'Ash Splash' and the tetchiness that surfaced last season when much of his time on camera was spent trying to start fights with bigger men after the whistle had gone.
A year ago, Ashton was on everyone's Lions Test XV list. A poor 2013 Six Nations ended with that stinker in Cardiff. The summer rest didn't have the desired effect.
Whatever the cause, he remained a shadow of his former self in the November internationals, plainly lacking confidence in an England shirt. Knowing he would have been dropped after the Australia match but for untimely injuries to Yarde and Wade will have further knocked his self-belief. Last minute reprieves don't inspire the confidence a player needs.
Praise be to Jack Nowell and Jonny May for convincing Lancaster that they deserve their chance. To call this a bold selection is to suggest it is reckless. Far from it; it would have been reckless to keep Ashton, whose defence was awful and never improved, a weakness opponents set out to exploit.
Selection of dynamic wingers is one thing; how they are used is quite another. We wait in eager anticipation of a game plan that sees England's exciting young backs given full opportunity to show their credentials in Paris.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
"It does sometimes get tough as you get older, but there's nothing else I'd rather do." Tom Hamilton talks to fly-half Dan Carter
Stingers, a rampaging Fijian and two Dannys looking to be champions of the world - Monday Maul looks at some key talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds