The Big Interview: Chris Ashton on his return to life in the North West
Rugby league has produced a number of rugby union’s finest players – Jason Robinson, Brad Thorn, Sonny Bill Williams – but few have had as bigger impact on the English game as Chris Ashton.
Whether it’s the celebrations or the tries, Ashton has never been far from the headlines. His trademark swan dive, or ‘Ash splash’, characterises his charismatic nature.
In a career that’s seen him break records and win trophies aplenty, the former Saracens man decided to up sticks and move to French titans Toulon in 2017, where he broke the try scoring record for one season.
Now the England international finds himself back in the North West, having started his career in the neighbouring borough of Wigan.
However, despite rugby union’s proud history in Greater Manchester, the 31-year-old insists he had no awareness of Sale Sharks or the sport in general while he was growing up just 20 miles down the road.
“I was always a rugby league boy, I had absolutely no idea about rugby union,” Ashton admits.
“I still watch rugby league every week when it’s on. I’m still a massive fan of it. But there’s too much in front of me that I need to focus on for me to be thinking about rugby league.”
Since switching to union back in 2007 – joining Northampton Saints from Wigan Warriors – he has always had an eye on returning to the north. However, it’s more than just his roots that brought him to Sale.
“I’d like to be part of the project and get them back up to the top of the league again,” he added.
“That’s the aim for me, and that’s the aim for [director of rugby] Steve Diamond and the owners as well. That’s what we’re all buying into.”
Since making his Gallagher Premiership Rugby debut for the club against Bath in early December, Sale have gone four league game unbeaten, including an impressive victory over the winger’s old side, Saracens last Friday night.
Chris Ashton bagged a hat-trick on his @SaleSharksRugby debut!
Talk about making an immediate impact 🏉🏉🏉 pic.twitter.com/CB0yKlc8Rl
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 21, 2018
After his debut for Sharks was initially delayed until October – when he faced Connacht in the European Challenge Cup – due to suspension, Ashton took out his frustration by scoring a hat-trick against the Irish province.
“It was good, just a relief really to get out there and playing,” he said, ahead of facing Connacht in the reverse fixture this weekend. “It was nice to get the hat-trick first time out.
“I always aim for that so it’d be nice to get another one this weekend. It’s good to start off on the right foot.
“During a ban there’s just absolutely nothing you can do, and that was probably the most frustrating thing. You can train and help the team but having to watch when you’re not injured, just standing and watching every week, is pretty hard to do.”
After missing out on spot in England’s 2016 Autumn international squad, Ashton decided it was the perfect opportunity for a change of scenery, and was released two years early from his contract at Saracens to move across the Channel.
“I do think maybe my time had gone with England, although as a player I thought I could still be there,” he said.
“I thought circumstances had taken the opportunity away from me. But being in France, I probably went back to being a little bit younger in my thinking again. The way that Toulon played rugby and some of the plays that I got to be a part of were an amazing experience for me.”
But after one season in France, Ashton had made his decision to return.
Despite playing scintillating rugby with Toulon, distance from family and the prospect of international rugby proved an altogether different draw to the beaches and sunshine of Provence.
“Deep down I always knew that I was kidding myself,” he honestly reflects. “When I did get the chance to go back to England, it made me realise the reasons why I so desperately wanted to be there in there first place.
“I’ve been away 11 years and I’ve got a young family so it’s nice to be near my family and being able to spend time with brothers, sisters and my mum. I can just pop round and see them, which something that I’ve been without for a long time.”
Ashton now plies his trade just a stone’s throw from where he made his rugby league debut 14 years ago.
It was Wigan Warriors’ decision not to offer a competitive contract to the winger that opened his options up, and ultimately made his decision to move to rugby union.
“I’d always lived at home and I’d always wanted to move away and try something different so it was just an ideal opportunity for me to try it out.
“If it didn’t work out, then I was young enough to go back. But I wanted a new experience, and I’ve always been like that, looking for new things. I thought the game could suit me quite well, and luckily it paid off.”
3 DAYS TO GO 🔥
A whole host of Friday night fixtures to kick-start Round 5 of #ChallengeCupRugby, before these two go head to head again 👇
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) January 8, 2019
Though Ashton claims that his transition took two years, in just his second season he was part of the Northampton Saints team that won National Division One, during which he broke the division’s try-scoring record for one season.
Though he still had a lot to learn in the game, his support play has always been acclaimed.
“I’ve always had a weird desire to score tries,” he added. “So, wherever the ball was I was willing to run extra and still now I picture how the play is going to play out before it happens.
“Generally, tries will be scored in a certain way, and that will happen over and over again in similar scenarios across the pitch.
“Although at first, I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing, it took time for me to understand that. That’s always been there, thankfully.”
From Saints, Ashton moved onto Saracens, where he became a part of the most successful teams in modern English rugby history.
During his time at the London-based club, he won two Premiership Rugby titles, two Champions Cups and one Anglo-Welsh Cup.
“The level of success was obviously amazing,” Ashton said. “I went there still quite immature and by the end of my time at the club, I felt that I’d matured and understood a lot more about myself. I also understood what it was like to be involved in a successful group.”
It was during his time at Sarries that Ashton’s England exile began, but it was at Sale where he opened a clean slate.
A four-year wait ended in October when Ashton was named as a member of the England squad for the Autumn internationals, and he’s returned to a set-up that he sees as a great improvement.
“There’s a lot more player responsibility, which I think is a good thing,” he said. “It was a very young team with the coaches before, so that has taken time to get together, but Eddie [Jones] has come in and given the players more responsibility on driving it within the group, which is quite different.
“For me, it was more like back to the start again after the lads that have been playing consistently over the last few years, I was the new boy again.”
With Sale a resurgent force this season, and Ashton a feature in the international picture once more, there seems to be much more to come from England’s joint-eighth leading try scorer of all-time in this new chapter of his enthralling career.