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Re: Ashton at Toulon
Posted by: Darraghgirl
Date: 09/12/2017 21:14
Nice article in the Times today about Ashy. As it isn't easily accessible, here it is below:-

[b]Chris Ashton: Eddie Jones told me that my tackling wasn’t right.
My heart just dropped
[/b]
The former England wing, a player who has always polarised opinion, tells Alex Lowe that his move to Toulon has given him freedom from the stresses of playing in England.

Tossing around a rugby ball as he strolls along the beach in Carqueiranne, a small resort just along the coast from Toulon towards Saint-Tropez, Chris Ashton is spotted by a few locals. One of the gentlemen applauds him, another mimics the “Ash splash”, his trade-mark try-scoring dive.
The Toulon fans are growing to enjoy the sight of Ashton flying over the line. His move to the Top 14 has thus far been a success: 13 tries in 11 games and a new role at full back that is giving him a licence to roam and bringing out the best of his predatory instincts.
Ashton is not about to go diving on to the rough, gravelly sand for them but he laughs and acknowledges the locals with a wave and a polite “bonjour”. He is starting to get recognised in these parts, where the rugby club is the beating heart of the community. “Even the Spar is a club partner,” Ashton says as he walks back past the marina, pointing to the local convenience store with a club badge in the window.

On the black-and-red ball that Ashton is spinning in his hands is printed the Toulon motto: “Ici, tout est différent”. For Ashton, that was the attraction of making a fresh start on the Côte d’Azur. Everything here is different.
Ashton, his wife Melissa, their daughter Ava and their dog live in Matt Giteau’s old house, which sits secluded at the top of a steep, jagged track and looks out on the Mediterranean. It feels a long way from Harpenden, in Hertfordshire, as the sunset casts a pink hue over the sky and the sea. Ashton brews a coffee and settles down to explain, for the first time since joining Toulon, the full story of how he ended up being here.
It is a tale that has its roots in 2014, when he was first dropped from the England team by Stuart Lancaster, and is not short on controversy. It all came to a head in 2016, a turbulent year in which Ashton was banned twice for a total of 23 weeks, turned his back on England and became a father.

“Who leaves Saracens really? You don’t see anyone leave who is playing every week,” Ashton says. “They all tend to finish their careers there and, to be honest, I thought I would have done the same. But I had just had enough. I wanted a change.”
Having been frozen out of the England picture by Lancaster, Ashton began 2016 by winning a recall with a place in Eddie Jones’s first squad. But the day before he was due in camp to begin preparations for the Six Nations, Ashton was cited for making contact with the eyes of Luke Marshall, the Ulster centre. There was a strong body of opinion that Ashton had been careless at worst but the disciplinary panel hit him with a ten-week ban. Knockback No 1.

“That was a joke,” he says. “We were all speechless. I’d worked so hard and I was back in the squad and then I’m thinking, ‘That’s it. That’s the end of my England career . . . over this.’ But I never gave up hope. My mindset was that I wanted to play for England and be the best winger. I spent ten weeks trying to improve.”
Ashton came roaring back into form, scoring ten tries in eight matches as Saracens reached the Aviva Premiership final. “I’m man-of-the match in the semi-final and the phone rings. It was Jones. I was like, ‘Right, a bit of good news.’ Then I get told I’m not going on the tour [to Australia].” Knockback No 2.

“I was told I was in the Saxons squad. My heart just dropped. He said to me my tackle completion wasn’t right — but at Saracens you make a tackle and get out as quickly as you can so you can get set again.
“Everyone I spoke to said, ‘Go [on the tour]’ and that it was a test. Everyone. Maybe it was a test and I failed dramatically. Melissa was pregnant. She had been pregnant before and lost it. It was getting close to the birth and I didn’t really want to go on tour to try to prove myself. I didn’t really feel I needed to.

“I’d done the Saxons thing for Stuart, going to Ireland and playing. It didn’t get me any farther along with him. When I rang him [Jones] he said, ‘Yeah no worries.’ That was it.”
Ashton had been bruised by his experiences under Lancaster, whom he claimed strung him along without ever explaining properly why he was not being picked. “I honestly don’t know what it was with Stuart,” he says. “I couldn’t have done any more. I had to deal with getting up every day to try and please someone who I couldn’t please in the end. It was constant, exhausting.”
Even after turning down the Saxons tour, the “positive” communication with Jones continued until Ashton was banned again at the start of the new season, this time a 13-week suspension for biting Alex Waller. Ashton argued that the teeth marks were caused by the force of Waller’s arm going into his mouth but the disciplinary panel concluded the bite was deliberate. Knockback No 3. The final straw.

“The ban was something I had to accept but it was hard to take,” he says. “The offer from Toulon only came because of the ban. If I hadn’t been banned it wouldn’t have definitely looked as though the England door had shut and I wouldn’t be annoyed at the whole situation.”
Jones made no effort to talk Ashton out of leaving. “He phoned just to say good luck. He left me a voicemail. I didn’t call him back.”
Saracens had to agree to Ashton’s release because he had two years left on his contract, although Mark McCall, the director of rugby, said he was making a mistake. “It made me know that I was very much valued by the team,” Ashton says. “Saracens changed me. They helped me to grow up a lot more than I thought I needed to. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Ashton repaid Saracens handsomely last season, scoring the last of his club-record 76 tries in the European Champions Cup final victory over Clermont Auvergne, after which Richard Barrington performed a special rap as part of the team’s victory celebrations.
“He used to do the Ash splash, now’s he just chasing cash; Ashy’s off to Toulon, he’s a cheeky so-and-so, a cheeky so-and-so,” Ashton sings, laughing at the memory. “Winning the European Cup in successive seasons was special. Getting a try on that day made it an even better memory for me and a nice one to finish on.”

Ashton’s haul of 37 tries in 57 Champions Cup games is a record, yet he has always divided opinion. Some dislike the showboating and on-field antics, but the class clown persona has always belied a fierce desire and strong work ethic. There have been silly moments along the way which do not endear him to people, such as the occasion he shouted “push it” as Nick Evans lined up a kick. But those who know him closely believe him to be misunderstood. Last month, after Toulon had lost away to Agen, he stopped for every selfie request before leaving the field.

“Getting banned doesn’t help,” Ashton concedes. “I’m sure we’ve all sat in front of the TV, no matter what the sport is and gone, ‘Oh, he looks like an idiot.’ Most of the people who I come across in life go, ‘You’re a lot different to what I expected.’

“I’m just competitive, I want to win and I like scoring tries. I had a very nice email from someone high up at Saracens who said he used to hate me when I played for Northampton. He said he mistook my confidence in playing for arrogance, was how he put it. After coming to understand the person I am he apologised for making that judgment. He didn’t need to.”
Ashton has learnt how to deal with the roller-coaster of emotions in sport, but he was upset recently when Manu Tuilagi appeared on BT Sport and stuck a picture of him on a punch bag. Six years ago, the police asked Ashton whether he wanted to press charges against Tuilagi for punching him in the head during an East Midlands derby. He did not. They were England team-mates and went to the World Cup together, but their relationship was never the same.

“I am the first one to have a joke and a laugh,” he says. “But when Manu put the picture back on and said ‘I want to punch his face’ I was like, hang on, maybe there is something in it.”There is more to be said on the subject of Tuilagi but Ashton decides to leave it in the past. The immediate future is back-to-back Champions Cup games against Bath. Toulon began their campaign with stuttering one-point victories over the Scarlets and Benetton, but Ashton feels they are beginning to click into gear under Fabien Galthié. Last weekend, they thumped Lyons 39-11, with Ashton scoring twice. He has seven tries in four games since moving to full back and is forming quite a back three combination with Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova.

“In French rugby they want to play,” Ashton says. “From full back I can go every time, everywhere, which is what I did when I first came over from league to union. At Saracens I had to pick when and where, but here I can get on the end of everything. This is better for me. I am happy with it.”

He has to keep reminding himself not to compare Toulon’s ways with those that he was so used to at Saracens. The two clubs could not be more different. The training is nowhere near as intense with Toulon, nor are the bonds as tight. Melissa is planning to invite other wives and girlfriends around for a coffee morning.
Then there is Mourad Boudjellal, the madcap owner. After that defeat in Agen, he made the players travel home on an overnight bus ride, eventually arriving in Toulon stiff and exhausted at 8am. “I expected it to be different,” Ashton says. “Probably not as different as it is, but I like it. Everything is new. Sometimes it’s hard not to look at where you have just come from and think, ‘Maybe we should do this’. But I’ve tried not to. You have to appreciate French people and the way they do things.”

Ashton listens as he strolls along the sand to comments made recently by Kevin Pietersen, who described a sense of freedom now that he has been able to leave England in the past. Ashton can relate to that sentiment. Living in this idyllic corner of France, he no longer feels weighed down by the baggage of England and the “constant stress” that accompanied it. The local gentleman who is pretending to pass him a rugby ball has no interest in anything other than how Ashton plays for Toulon.

“Maybe I would have played for England again, maybe I wouldn’t. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can forget about it,” he says.
“You play in England and there is always a group of people who think, ‘He’s not good enough to play for England.’ Here you don’t have that.
“Why be in England and be surrounded by it all the time, when I can be here and away from it all? It’s what I wanted. If I do well here at Toulon, the team and the fans are more than happy.” Everything here is different indeed.

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