England vs New Zealand: Eddie Jones puts his faith back in Chris Ashton in bid to 'make history'
Back in favour, Ashton can be the key to unlocking the All Blacks defence as Jones continues to build his England team around talisman Owen Farrell - providing he doesn't break first
Ashton will make his first start since June 2014, having been promoted from the bench to replace Jack Nowell after winning his first England cap in four years last weekend.
With the 31-year-old back in the mix, thoughts of the famous 2012 victory over New Zealand immediately spring to mind, when Ashton scored one of England’s three tries as they beat the All Blacks for only the fifth time in their history, but the record shows that the visitors have undoubtedly held the upper hand between these two sides.
With New Zealand currently on an all-time best run of nine consecutive years at the top of the World Rugby rankings, and England still missing 17 possible players through injury and suspension, the size of the challenge in front of Jones’ squad is undoubtedly the biggest they have faced since the Australian took charge. But he believes that makes the potential reward even greater.
“All I know is that it’s a great honour to play against New Zealand and every chance you get to play against New Zealand is something in your rugby life that you never want to regret,” Jones said. “For our players there’s a chance to change English rugby history.
“Eighteen per cent of Tests against New Zealand (at Twickenham) have been won by England, 33 per cent of our players have beaten New Zealand (with the British and Irish Lions), so we want to come off the field on Saturday and have 100 per cent of our players having beat New Zealand, and we re-write the history a little bit.
“That’s the opportunity for us, so if people want to write it up as an ‘Epic battle’...one thing I do know is that it’s got no relevance to the World Cup. That’s the one thing I do know.”
Part of the plan to make history is the role that Ashton will play. The wing is evidently part of Jones’ thinking when he acknowledges that England will need to take their chances when they arise on Saturday, but that wasn’t always the case.
Jones selected Ashton in his first squad for the 2016 Six Nations, only for a 10-week ban for making contact with the eyes of Ulster’s Luke Marshall preventing him from featuring, and when he was left out of the summer tour squad that year he rejected a request to play for the England Saxons that ultimately led to the temporary end of his international career.
But after a year in France with Toulon, Ashton has returned all the wiser and, if it was possible, an even better finisher. He scored a hat-trick against England for the Barbarians earlier this year and three more tries on his Sale debut last month has helped trigger a change of heart within Jones, who hopes that the wideman can be the key to unlocking the Kiwi defence just like he did six years ago.
“He’s a try-getter,” Jones said of Ashton. “He’s played 40-odd Tests for England. He’s got an opportunity to play a big game on Saturday. It’s nothing coached. Guys like that, the only thing you can do is stuff them up by coaching them. You just give them a free rein, give them a framework to operate in, make them feel good about themselves, make sure they’ve got a smile on their face and away they go.
“The thing is, if he hadn’t got into so much trouble, he’d have played a few Tests already. He’s always up to no good. Wherever there’s trouble, there’s Ashton. How many times couldn’t we pick him because he’s been suspended? He might have a deal with a lawyer that he gets paid extra if the lawyer gets extra work.
“He’s a good player and he has been for a long time.”
The reference to Saturday’s Test and its relevance to the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year is an interesting one given that the ability to defeat both Australia and New Zealand is viewed as being a key reason behind England’s 2003 triumph. That was of course on foreign soil, which secured Sir Clive Woodward’s side the reputation as being the best side on the planet ahead of the global gathering in Australia, and it must be said that Jones’ side are still some way from being close to that reputation.
But in Owen Farrell, Jones at least has a talismanic Jonny Wilkinson-esque figure that can inspire those around him in leading by example and, as last Saturday showed, providing match-winning moments – both in attack and defence as his controversial shoulder charge on Andre Esterhuizen proved.
But it’s this very reputation that leaves Farrell going into these games at breaking point, with Jones evidently unhappy with the number of late tackles that his star fly-half is exposed to as he claimed that if his reputation was something similar to his Lions teammate Johnny Sexton’s, he would be protected.
“If he was Johnny Sexton then we’d be able to complain about him, but because he’s Owen Farrell he’s allowed to be hit late,” claimed Jones.” He’s allowed to be bit, he’s tough so he gets up and he plays. He’ll be like that this week.
“We manage him every week. He’s a tough rooster. He takes the ball to the line, he puts his body on the line, he doesn’t play in a dinner suit. He gets hit, he gets up and he plays and keeps doing it.
“I think players like him are never 100 per cent right. They get on the field, they play and they give you everything they’ve got and he’s like that.”
Jones attempted to combat this last year by leaving Farrell out of the autumn internationals against Argentina and Samoa, but such is the competitive streak that runs through the Saracens fly-half, it is proving difficult for that to happen when such big matches are on the horizon.
The likelihood is that Farrell will be rested from next week’s Quilter International against Japan with George Ford given the No 10 shirt back, but it is not a conversation the Jones is relishing.
“He’s a warrior. Imagine me going in there and saying, ‘You’re not playing this week’. He wants to play every week. If we are playing marbles on a Wednesday, he wants to play. He’s a competitor. You can’t put blokes like him in cotton wool – they want to play. They want to play for their country. They want to make their country great.”
That ultimately would be achieved by winning the World Cup, and it starts with trying to find a way to defeat the All Blacks. Farrell knows what that feel like in an England shirt along with Ashton, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Danny Care, while Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Ben Te’o, Jamie George and Jack Nowell have achieved it with the Lions. But if they can meet Jones’ desire to have 100 per cent of the squad knowing exactly what that feels like, the grand plan to take down the best team in the world at next year’s World Cup may just be starting to click into gear.