Ashton may have no way back

Date published: August 9 2015

Saracens winger Chris Aston may have played his last game for England after being part of the latest squad cull on Friday.

Injuries might give him a lifeline but having only made two appearances for England since 2013, his selection for the final 31-man Rugby World Cup squad was always going to be an uphill battle.

Ashton divides opinion even in the post-'Ash Splash' era. His defence at international level will never convince some, while others will swear by his ability as a "world-class" matchwinner with the tries he so regularly scores. 

For years England couldn't do without him. Now they have moved on. 

Those detractors might not believe it but Ashton has improved the areas of his game that led to him losing his place in England's Test side.

His defence, positioning and kicking game have all been tweaked and worked on with obvious results. He is a better player than the one who finished the 2011 Rugby World Cup as the joint top try scorer. Plus, he knows that being a top international player isn't all about scoring tries.

He told the Guardian back in April: “For a long time I just thought: ‘Oh, I scored three tries there, nothing else matters.'

"Slowly, as you get older – and teams figure out your weaknesses – you realise you have stuff to work on all the time. It has just been a case of improving my all-round game, rather than just being worried about scoring.”

But if that revamp isn't enough for Ashton to win a place in England's 31-man squad, let alone a Test place, then how does he come back from here?

Time is on his side at only 28-years-old but there is an air of finality about this omission. All of the wingers selected ahead of Ashton are younger and have played more since England turned the final bend on the racetrack towards the World Cup in the last 18 months.

Ashton was being linked with a move to Top 14 giants Clermont back in May, as was his club team-mate David Strettle.

Both were named in Stuart Lancaster's original 50-man World Cup squad and Strettle consequently withdrew when he wanted to prioritise settling his family in France.

Ashton is four years younger and at Saracens part of a tight-knit group who will rally around a player well-liked by his team-mates and coaches and who want the best for him.

Whether that is enough to keep him in England with no prospect of wearing the red rose again is another matter.

His situation might be flipped on its head if one of Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson or Jonny May go down with injury but even then he is up against Semesa Rokoduguni, who reports before Friday suggested had done enough to avoid the latest squad trimming.

Ashton could return to Rugby League where he was successful with Wigan, or follow through on that move to France for a valuable stint in the Top 14. 

Suggesting that might be a disservice to his loyalty to Saracens but also the hunger Ashton has shown in trying to make it back into England's favour, given this is a player who once described losing his Test place to  “having an arm and leg ripped off.”

The omens though aren't promising. Ashton's 19 tries in 39 matches shouldn't be sniffed at, but he may not get the chance to add to either tally again.

by Ben Coles