Rugby Union

Chris Ashton exclusive: I didn't really know the rules

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England's most recent cross-code revelation, Chris Ashton, has spoken with GiveMeSport about the problems presented by switching league for union...

When Benji Marshall, known to rugby league fans as 'The Wizard', left the Auckland Blues in 2014, deflated and dejected, it helped the sporting world to fully appreciate just how difficult it is to successfully switch codes.

Very few have managed to make this transition, which only enhances the reputation of those who do. Chris Ashton switched codes in 2007, when he left Wigan Warriors and a promising rugby league career behind, to join the Northampton Saints. 

"I just wanted to go and try something different," said Ashton. "Because I was so young when I started rugby league, I was only six-years-old. I had the opportunity to play for my home town club (Wigan), which I loved and I played for England of course.

"But I wanted to get out and see the world a bit. I thought it was my opportunity when I went to Northampton. I wanted to try something different, something new. Plus I was young enough, I would have been able to go back if I had fallen flat on my face.

"It turns out Northampton is not very different to Wigan at all, but it did not know that when I went." 

But there was another difference Ashton had to get to grips with, the dramatic differences between rugby union and league, that can only be fully appreciated by those who have played the codes.

"Moving to Northampton was much more difficult than I thought it would be. People underestimate the differences between the sports.

"It is the same ball, but completely different games. There are little bits of skill that you can transfer across, but it is almost like teaching yourself a whole new skill. You really have to change. It was a difficult time.

"Fortunately Northampton were in the division below when I joined. We had a great team and I had time to get up to speed because we were in division one and we had such a good team."

The skills and understanding that are essential to to rugby union can be taught and developed over time. But Ashton switched codes with two traits that allowed him to make an immediate impact on the 15-man game; a predatory instinct and searing pace. 

When Ashton made his debut for the Saints, against London Welsh in 2007, he scored with his first touch of the ball. Ashton went on to score 39 tries in 25 matches, setting a National League One record.

His haul helped Northampton secure the league title, and promotion to the Premiership. However, despite a prolific first season with the Saints, Ashton concedes that promotion exposed his lingering naivety. 

"When we went up to the Premiership, I struggled. I did not really know the rules that well, I had kind of gotten away with it before. I had to kind of start again and learn to understand the game fully," he admitted. 

But it did not take long for Ashton to learn how to score top-flight tries. After a relatively quiet first season in the Premiership, Ashton rediscovered his prolific form. At the start of the 2009-2010 season, he scored 15 tries in 16 games and forced the England manager Martin Johnson to take note.

Unlike so many men who switch codes, Ashton successfully mastered the intricacies of rugby union, but he also retained the skills he had learnt at Wigan and applied them to the 15-man game.

After Ashton was called up to the England squad in 2010, he revolutionised the international game by leaving his wing and cutting support lines on the fringes of rucks. These unique running angles devastated defences and helped Ashton amass a sizeable tally international scores.

But eventually the torrent of England tries slowed to a trickle, then a drought. But Ashton has never let his club form slip, since joining Saracens in 2012, he has only improved.

This season, Ashton has scored19 tries this season in all competitions, including a record-breaking 11 in the Heineken Cup. And, after Saracens play Toulon in the Heineken Cup final, and Northampton in the Premiership final, win or lose, Ashton is set to return from international exile and join England's touring party in New Zealand.

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Chris Ashton
Rugby Union

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