Munster stand in way of Ashton's england ascent
FACING Chris Ashton over the next three weeks is a steep upward climb that could take him to the highest level of the game, WRITES John Westerby.
First, he has two sizeable obstacles to surmount with Northampton in the Heineken Cup, starting tomorrow with a must-win match at home to Perpignan, followed on Friday by one of the club game's steepest challenges, a trip to Limerick to play Munster.
Ashton will then link up with England's elite squad to prepare for the Six Nations, aiming to prove he has a head for the heights of international rugby. Three weeks today, he could win his first cap against Wales at Twickenham.
Such has been his momentum this season, there seems every chance that Ashton (22) will take the final few steps to the summit.
He is the joint-leading try scorer in the Heineken Cup, with five in four matches, and is also top of the Guinness Premiership charts with nine tries.
Not bad for the wing from Wigan who began his journey to rugby union's loftier peaks only two and a half years ago, firmly rooted at base camp after crossing codes from rugby league.
"He was as raw as they come," Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, said. "His strength, finishing and one-on-one defence, we'd no problems there, but his understanding of the game and his knowledge of contact skills was non-existent. He's come a long way."
There was, however, an unmistakable gift for scoring tries, the sort of finisher's instinct possessed by the best forwards in football.
He scored with his first touch for Northampton and amassed a record 39 tries in National League One. He stalled a little last season, after Northampton's return to the Premiership, but in the past few months his command of the skills required of a rugby union wing has looked complete.
"The idea was that I was young enough to come over (from rugby league), unlike some players who've run out of time just as they've got to the England set-up," Ashton said.
Meanwhile, Stade Francais prop David Attoub faces a lengthy ban for gouging during a Heineken Cup game.
Judicial officer Jeff Blackett found an act of foul play did occur, in that Attoub made contact with the eye or eye area of Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris last month.
Blackett had adjourned Attoub's hearing on December 18, imposing an immediate interim suspension on the player.
The hearing was reconvened earlier this week, when Blackett heard evidence from both Attoub and Ferris, but any sanction will not be decided until a later date.
Attoub's Stade team-mate Julien Dupuy was given a 24-week suspension -- reduced to 23 weeks on appeal -- for a gouging offence on Ferris in the same match. Dupuy cannot play again until May.
Stade resume their Heineken Cup campaign against Bath in Paris today, when they need a win to stay on course for the quarter-finals. (© The Times, London)