What is Eddie Jones going to do now? No sooner has he relented on the Cipriani Question than another of the people’s favourites appears on the horizon. Chris Ashton is back.
He was meant to spend three years with Toulon, out of England, out of mind, but he returns after only a year. It’s not exactly with his tail between his legs, either. Not only has he topped the try-scoring charts in his year away in the Top 14, but he’s broken the French record for them, his 24 tries three more than the previous record – and, for what it’s worth, seven more than the English.
As if that weren’t enough of a nose-tweak for EJ, he scored another three for the Barbarians against England in the most humiliating of the latter’s several recent defeats, Test match or not. And he did it from full-back, where he scored most of his tries for Toulon, the very position into which Jones has lately been trying to shoehorn a three-quarter, on the basis, presumably, that he might improve England’s attacking options. ‘Well, if it’s attack you want,’ Ashton might very well quip between swallow dives, ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and despair…’
Ashton is probably not returning to England because he thinks he’s about to be welcomed in from his international exile. Curiously, one of Jones’s first moves in 2016 was to recall him amid a flurry of praise, describing him as ‘mad as a cut snake’. Somewhere along the line, Jones lost that enthusiasm.
One has to assume it’s Ashton’s defence and aerial game that have remained the issues, the same that keep Christian Wade out of the reckoning. Wade is the only other man in English rugby who can compare as a try-scorer. Both are closing in on Tom Varndell’s Premiership record, although Wade, four years younger, is the likelier to end up top.
But these issues, let’s call them the more boring responsibilities of the outside back, don’t cut it as reasons, and not only because both have improved in those areas. There are others in the England party with the same deficiencies – Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Denny Solomona, even Elliot Daly. You wouldn’t want to rely on any of them on a swirling, wet day in Dublin, say.
What Ashton and Wade suffer most from is popularity. Jones has a natural aversion to anything too obvious. It’s both his strength and weakness as a coach. In early 2016, Ashton was not an obvious selection. When he returned, though, from the unjust suspension that put him out of the Six Nations, he scored try after try as Saracens won the double. Suddenly, he was too obvious.
When a coach is winning, he can do what the hell he likes. Now, interestingly, England’s results have wavered, and so has Jones’s stubbornness. Would Danny Cipriani have won that 16th cap had England not stopped winning? Will Ashton ever win that 40th?
Let’s just be grateful he’s returned to find out.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now