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England wing Chris Ashton charts his journey from a rugby league obsessed teenager to his roller-coaster ride in rugby union and his dramatic return to the international stage.
“I’ve never stopped fighting or wanting to play for England.”
I played rugby league from about the age of five with my older brother and his mates, they were a bit bigger so I got beaten up a fair amount so I had to learn to be a bit faster but I loved it.
Coming from a place like Wigan, back then the place was league obsessed. All my friends and family used to watch Wigan play, that’s just what we did, it was harder to not be included than be included. It was easy for me to follow that path.
I grew up watching a very successful Wigan team that had the likes of Jason Robinson and Shaun Edwards in. In particular Shaun used to score so many tries through supporting up the middle of the pitch which I learned from. I played full back a lot, so I used to be around the middle of the pitch and as soon as there was a break I was able to get up on the inside and get on the end of the try. It was something I’ve definitely taken across to rugby union.
I had absolutely no idea when I got to Northampton Saints how to play the game, I’d never played it before, never watched it so the whole thing was a whole new learning experience for me and as a result I have a lot to thank them for. They put a lot of time in with me and at the start I didn’t automatically take to the game, it was just a lot of repeating things and putting in the hours. It took two years for me to feel comfortable and thankfully I was in a very good team and there was a lot of space created for me to score a lot of tries.
When you are young you have that ‘no fear’ attitude because you have no experience or baggage. You just play that way; it’s all new to you. Over time even though you are doing the same things you do at the start it becomes the norm and then you gain experience and that makes you a better person for both those good and bad experiences. They’ve all formed me as a person and the player I am today.
The Ash Splash came about in a Six Nations game by accident, just out of pure excitement. We were doing really well and I think it was one of my first games at Cardiff. I was just a bit excited, I didn’t realise I’d done it and then by chance I got a chance to do it the following week as I had a bit of time and it evolved from there. Whether that be good or bad I’ve done it ever since.
Phoenix from the ash
I never stopped fighting or wanting to play for England.
I thought at one time that decision might be taken away from me by having a couple of bans so I changed things and tried something new and went to France and that worked out really well and I feel better for the experience.
I knew that people tended to go to France towards the back end of their career, I was only 30 so didn’t feel like that. Training and doing extras is what gives me my edge so I wanted to continue to do that and I was surrounded by good players. We had a good S&C coach at Toulon and he helped me a lot, I went there to enjoy it, prove something to myself, to enjoy my rugby and to play my game.
I learned to enjoy rugby again and I guess for a bit of time I’d fallen out of love with it. Playing in the sun, new stadiums and getting new experiences, with some of the best players in the world was something I’ll never forget. Home games were outstanding, the town shuts down and everyone goes to watch the team. It’s an amazing place to go and watch rugby.
Before I made my international return in the autumn I got the opportunity to play for the Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium in May.
I went into the game knowing it was an unusual situation for me to play for the Barbarians against England and I used it as an opportunity to put in place what I’d been through during the year and show how much I was enjoying my rugby.
Seeing Eddie Jones before the game, I just wanted to say hello and all he said was 'if you want to play rugby for England you need to come back'. That’s all I really needed to hear. The day went so well and after the game I was like, I need to come home and try and play for England again.