Sale Sharks and England’s Chris Ashton tells Chris Heal about a ‘really good’ last two months, his international aspirations ahead of next year’s World Cup and why there is still a lot more to come from his club side.
Chris Ashton stands next to a shopping trolley which is stacked high with Christmas presents. Alongside him, is team-mate Faf de Klerk and both look extremely pleased with their efforts.
“Me and Faf made a fort within the trolley to make the height of two trollies so we did alright!” says a delighted Ashton. “180 items in the trolley and £1005 made so we have to be happy with that!”
The duo have just completed their leg of a ‘Trolley Dash’ to raise money for the ‘Cash for Kids’ Mission Christmas campaign as part of an excellent community initiative by Sale Sharks.
Players and staff at the club managed to collect £5500 worth of toys and gifts at their local B&M store in Sale to help make sure disadvantaged children in Manchester have presents to open on Christmas morning.
“The cause is for ‘Cash for Kids’,” adds Ashton. “It is an outstanding cause and at this time of year, when you are a child, I can’t imagine what it is like not having any gifts on Christmas Day so let’s hope it sorts a lot of kids out and they get something at Christmas time.”
While Ashton’s contribution will definitely help put smiles on the faces of children during this festive period, he may also be pleased with his own efforts on the rugby field over the last two months.
After receiving a seven-week ban for a tip-tackle against Castres in pre-season, Ashton’s return to England has finally sparked into life.
Following his long absence, Ashton's first appearance for Sale was in the European Challenge Cup and the winger made an instant impact by scoring a hat-trick against Connacht as the Sharks secured consecutive wins in their respective continental competition.
Since the last European window, the 31-year-old also made his first England appearance for four years as he came off the bench in the opening autumn international victory over South Africa before being named in the starting XV for the clash with New Zealand a week later.
Against the world champions, the winger also scored his first try for his country since 2013 before completing his November against Japan.
An injury saw Ashton miss the final international with Australia, but he returned to action last week to make his Premiership debut for Sale in their 7-7 draw against Bath at the Rec.
“It [the last two months] have been really good,” Ashton says. “It was probably a delayed time getting started at Sale, but I am really enjoying it here. I am really enjoying being back playing and I have had a good two months and I am just glad to be back into it now.”
As soon as Ashton announced his return to the Gallagher Premiership in the summer, it refuelled talk surrounding his England future. After moving to the Top14 and Toulon, his international career was put on hold, but the winger continued to shine across the channel.
He broke the try-scoring record in his first season in France and also produced a sublime display against England for the Barbarians in the summer as he scored a hat-trick at Twickenham. However, he was pulling on the Red Rose once again at the start of last month as he aims for place in Eddie Jones’s World Cup plans.
“The feeling of playing for England had never really gone away,” insists Ashton. “It was more about forgetting the feeling of what it is like to be out there playing for England, but that came back straight away. It was actually what I hoped it was and I really enjoyed it. I would love to get back out there and get another opportunity at some point.
“Hopefully I can be involved next year. That [playing for England] is a priority of mine, to be honest. I am not fortunate to be looking further than that, but I just hope to be involved. Eddie is a great coach and the coaches that they have there are doing a great job. There is the right leadership group in place too so the team can only kick on.”
ASHTON OPENS THE SCORING!— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) November 10, 2018
Chris Ashton scores the opening try of the game against New Zealand inside two minutes!@EnglandRugby v AllBlacks is live on Sky Sports Action. If you can't watch then follow our blog: https://t.co/dKghjhnZhg pic.twitter.com/YLL66SW4GP
England entered November with some pressure on their shoulders. Following a disappointing Six Nations campaign and a frustrating summer tour of South Africa, Eddie Jones was also without a number of key players going into their autumn series.
But after three victories from four– as well as running the All Blacks extremely close - England head into the New Year with some positivity behind them with all roads leading to Japan. “The team is really good at keeping that [pressure] hidden away,” Ashton adds.
“The team are fully behind what is going on and that is all that matters, really. If the team are comfortable and confident within themselves, then the results will come. The players are good enough and that’s what happened.
“That’s the way rugby goes. Some days you get good days and bad days, but thankfully, we had more positive days in the autumn.”
The increased positivity around England and Ashton can apply to Sale too. Since Ashton played a starring role against Connacht, Steve Diamond’s side have lost on just two occasions, including a narrow defeat at Premiership champions Saracens.
Despite Sale’s upturn in performances and results on the domestic front, they are still embroiled in a quite remarkable fight in the bottom half of the Gallagher Premiership. As things stand, Newcastle prop up the division, but only five points separates the Falcons and sixth-placed Bath.
Sale occupy 11th spot, but with players returning from international duty and injuries, Ashton feels his side are in better position than some of the teams directly above them in the table.
“I think it is a case of getting us all playing together regularly, which we have not had consistently yet," he says. “We have got some great players in our team and as you say, it is all tight!
“No-one around there seems to be playing better than anyone else. I just think we are in a more fortunate position because we actually think we are creating opportunities and creating chances. I don’t think some other teams are and we do take a lot of confidence from that.
“We felt we should have won on the weekend against Bath and Saracens was another one that got away from us. We are not far off and hopefully we can start moving up the table shortly.”
TEAM NEWS | Here are #YourSharks to face @UBBrugby rugby tomorrow evening in the @ERChallengeCup!@wilkyxwilkinson moves back to Fly-half with @Will_Cliff88 the provider at 9!— Sale Sharks?? (@SaleSharksRugby) December 7, 2018
Hat-trick hero @ChrisAshton1 shifts to fullback, and Sam James takes the 13 shirt!#SharksByNature pic.twitter.com/lh0KkJXLgX
Attention for Sale now turns to the Challenge Cup. Currently, they sit at the top of Pool 3 going into a double-header with Bordeaux-Bègles and following their European duties, the Sharks end the year with fixtures against Bristol Bears and Gloucester in the Gallagher Premiership.
“I am really excited to be back in Europe,” says Ashton who will start at full-back against Bordeaux on Saturday evening. “It is just a great competition. We do have a very young squad so I am looking forward to just playing again at the weekend and it gives us another chance to play together and get familiar with how we are going to play.
“It is an important time of year. It is always a bit of a gauge, Christmas time, with how you are doing so we will target these next few games to be wins and we will see where we are come Christmas.”
While Ashton may not have come out on top in the ‘Trolley Dash’ – eventually losing to Jono Ross and James O’Connor - the winger is hoping he and his teammates can end 2018 on a high.
Chris was speaking at a ‘Cash for Kids’ Mission Christmas event in Sale as the club helped to support the drive to make sure that disadvantaged children in Manchester have presents to open at Christmas.
Anyone wishing to donate gifts to Cash for Kids’ Mission Christmas appeal this year can do so through designated community drop off points, with more than 300 drop offs across the country.
For more information, visit: http://www.cashforkids.uk.com/mission/