CHRIS Ashton has been given unequivocal backing by England and Saracens after he was attacked with a glass in a London nightclub late on Saturday.
He had gone out with club team-mates and partners after playing against Leicester at Wembley.
Ashton, who moved to Saracens from Northampton in the summer, was approached during the evening and words were exchanged. It is understood that a headbutt was attempted on Ashton, who pushed the assailant away only to be struck a glancing blow with a glass by a third party. A club statement spoke of “an uninvited stranger approaching the Saracens group. A brief altercation occurred which resulted in a friend of this stranger attacking Chris Ashton with a glass”.
Ashton, who was with his girlfriend Melissa, celebrating the fifth anniversary of their first meeting, sustained a couple of cuts to his face. He went to hospital for treatment but did not need any stitches. The whole incident lasted about 30 seconds and Ashton is understood to have been shaken by it. It is believed that the two men quickly disappeared from the club. Police were not called and a spokesman for the Met said on Sunday night they had received no complaint.
Although Ashton was in a bar, there is no suggestion of drunkenness nor of disciplinary action by either club or country. England head coach Stuart Lancaster, renowned for his tough stance on discipline, spoke by phone with Ashton on Sunday.
The England wing had been trying to get in touch himself in order to make sure that his version of events was made clear. Lancaster considers the matter to be dealt with, a significant indicator as he has not hesitated previously to suspend players for inappropriate behaviour.
A spokesman for the Rugby Football Union said: “England have looked into the incident and consider the matter closed.”
Saracens themselves were quick to back their recent signing. “Since arriving at the club, Chris has proved himself an outstanding member of the Saracens family, on and off the field,” Edward Griffiths the club’s chief executive, said.
“It is a reality that well-known sports people are provoked by strangers and subsequent events are instantly tweeted. People will inevitably see this story and say an England rugby player is in trouble again.
“For clarity, Chris Ashton is not in trouble at all. On the contrary, he was celebrating an anniversary with his girlfriend and showed admirable restraint.”
Ashton said on Twitter. “So some bloke decided to spoil an evening out for me and my misses [sic]. No stitches needed – back to work tomorrow.”
There is no curfew on players after matches and club sources stressed that this was a normal post-match gathering. The regime at Saracens is inclusive and self-policing. They have a deserved reputation as a family-friendly club and players are encouraged to socialise.
Despite Ashton’s breezy assertion that things will be back to normal Monday morning, the 25 year-old will be mortified that he has been caught up in such events as he was eager for a fresh start after switching clubs.
He has already delivered on the field, scoring three tries in his first three games. Yet he is fully aware of how he is seen in some quarters: as a showboater for his 'Ash Splash’ try-celebration, and as needy and self-promoting by some in Northampton for the manner of his departure.
This incident will only fuel those negative perceptions even though he appears to have been embroiled in something not of his own making.
Lancaster’s support is important in the wider context of the reputation of English rugby as well as being a boon to the player.
The England squad were warned about the need for blameless behaviour when Lancaster took over last December. The England head coach immediately showed that he was prepared to back up his disciplinary stance when he suspended Danny Care for the Six Nations after the Harlequins scrum-half was involved in several drink-related incidents.
It was almost exactly a year ago that England’s World Cup campaign imploded in New Zealand following a management-sanctioned night out in Queenstown. The fallout from that drink-fuelled evening led eventually to the exit of Martin Johnson.
Ashton was one of those pictured at a bar where dwarf-tossing contests were part of the nightly entertainment. He also found himself caught up in an incident in a Dunedin hotel room which drew rebuke from Johnson.
This episode is salutary as well as dispiriting. There would no longer appear to be any such thing as a quiet night out.
By Mick Cleary Telegraph.co.uk