Chris Ashton on Rugby League past, experience with Toulon and 19/20 season ahead with Sale
Ahead of the huge Gallagher Premiership opener between Sale and Gloucester, we caught up with Chris Ashton to discuss his storied career which saw a transition from Rugby League to Union, playing in France and now his current form with Sale Sharks.
This weekend marked the end of the Rugby League season, with St Helens winning the Grand Final against surprise package, Salford Red Devils. Ashton is no stranger to the elite competition in the Super League as the winger spent two years at Wigan Warriors, scoring an impressive 30 tries in 52 appearances. Chris gave an insight into the love he still has for Rugby League and what switching codes was like back in 2007:
“I’m very much a big fan, I watch it as much as I can. It was a big part of my childhood playing Rugby League growing up, but it is a very different game which is probably why I struggled so much coming to Union, because nothing was natural to me. Rugby League was all instinct and automatic whereas Union wasn’t like that. It took years to make Union instinctual and natural. Hitting breakdowns was something I’ve never done before, so it took repeating that over and over for it to become part of my game, rather than worrying about what to do next. It was difficult but I’m glad I made the transition”
Ashton joined Northampton Saints in March 2007, but it was a long process to becoming a first team regular and a prolific Union player:
“I had to take half the year out at Northampton because I didn’t get what was going on, so I had to sit and watch, which was a difficult time. I had to play a lot of A-League and not first team – which is what everyone wanted. I got an opportunity after that and I made sure when I got back in that, I did all the basics right. Whatever was required from my job and whatever came naturally to me was extra. I worked week by week to stay in the team and it snowballed from there”
After excelling in the Premiership with Northampton and then Saracens, Chris decided to test himself in the Top 14 league with Toulon for the 17/18 season. The former England winger only spent a year in France but he more than left his mark in the country, breaking the record for most tries in a single season with 24 in 23 appearances for the club. Despite his eye-catching form, the competition in the Premiership and the homeliness of England was something that Ashton missed:
“It was a very different culture, one that I always wanted to try so I’m glad I did. I probably didn’t settle as well as I’d have hoped, but I really enjoyed the Rugby over there, the weather’s always sunny. You got big crowds wherever you went in France, so it was a really good experience for me and my family, but a year was enough for me”
After a successful individual season which saw Ashton score 50 points for Sale, the 32 year old is aiming for a strong campaign in domestic and European competitions in the 19/20 season:
“Thankfully we managed to get into the European Champions Cup this year, I think with the players and talent we’ve got coming in, we’re a team that needs be in this competition. We’re looking forward to being back in that after a year out, we want to be playing against the best teams and being in that is only good going into the Premiership, as they’re both top level tournaments. The goal this year is to get as high up in the table as we can, we just can’t get too excited, we have to start well”
With a new Premiership season looming, an opportunity for Sale’s new recruits to showcase their skills at the highest-level beckons and Ashton is impressed with the international names and the academy graduates that have joined the side this year:
“It’s just good to see a group of players come in fit and in shape, they’re keen to learn and get to training, that pushes everyone on. We’ve got a good group of young lads coming through but once the games get going that’s the difficult time. Maybe you don’t get picked and you’re constantly pushing for it, that’s when it gets tough. In the summer and you’re training it’s not easy, but it’s easier when you’re pushing for a place, so let’s hope they do that throughout the season and they play well when they’re picked. The majority of the new lads who have come in are international players, so I’m really looking forward to seeing them”
The Sharks come up against Gloucester in the season opener, the same side they finished the 18/19 campaign against in a thrilling 46-41 win at the AJ Bell back in May. Despite the game being an attractive display of attacking play, Ashton has made it clear that Saturday won’t be a similar high scoring affair, with both side’s defences looking to stand tall:
“It was a typical end of season game, the sun’s out and everyone knows they’ve got some time off coming up so they want to score tries more than they want to defend. I think it’ll be a very different game to start the season, the defence will be a lot tighter for both teams”
We wish Chris Ashton and the rest of Sale Sharks the best of luck this Saturday against Gloucester and stay tuned to see who our Morson Game Changer from week one is!
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