Ashton making a splash
England's try-scoring sensation eager to help seal Grand Slam in style
In rugby, it has been the season of the swallow; too early perhaps to dangerously foretell a summer, yet, unusually, spring has been brimful of them.
Chris Ashton's swallow dive has added a splash of much-needed colour to the prosaic mosaic of the 2011 Six Nations; inviting new, wide-eyed glances to the northern hemisphere annual internecine combat.
As many people are enthralled by Ashton's flair and novelty as they are repelled by it; what some perceive to be glorious expressionism is snootily derided by others as an affront to the game's traditional values.
What is certain is that Ashton's explosion on to the international scene -- in less than a year, his 11 caps have produced nine tries, six in this Six Nations, including a championship record four in one game against Italy.
Yet how much of the 'Ash Splash' is founded upon the serendipity of finding himself in an English side brimming with confidence as they pitch up in Dublin smelling a Grand Slam, rather than complete novelty?
During this campaign, there has been a constant thread of opinion -- Union sages will protest it is propaganda -- suggesting that the 23-year-old is directly deploying successful tactics unique to his erstwhile rugby league background.
But is that really the case? Not as much as his supporters may like to think. And, as for the diving try celebration? We suggest a glimpse at the archive of one or two of Shane Williams' 55 international tries, who was coming off his wing when Ashton was still in school trousers.
Ashton's timing on the pitch, his trailing of the ball while seemingly abandoning his wing posting, owes as much to a perfect storm of English certainty under Martin Johnson, the coach whose forbidding eyebrows have failed to dampen his player's celebratory ardour.
"He's just come along at the right time and the game of quick ball and quick tempo seems to suit him," offers Gordon D'Arcy. "Mark Cueto is doing that inside trail as well.
"About four years ago this was in vogue, the double inside runner, running off the 10. Vinnie Murray used to tell me in school, when I played on the wing, support the ball, support the ball, support the ball. So if the ball doesn't leave the 10, you don't leave either until it goes out one channel.
"You always run inside the ball. So he's just doing the basics, but he's doing them extremely well. England are very well-drilled, everyone knows what they're doing."
An element of his style is certainly divined from League, whose lack of set-piece allows players to constantly track the ball in play from defence to attack.
Kris Radlinski, general manager of Wigan, where Ashton learned his trade before fleeing for the greater exposure -- and money, multiplying a £25,000 salary into £150,000 and counting -- is enthralled by the impact his former charge is making.
"Like the whole of rugby, I'm enjoying watching Chris play," says the League legend. "He is playing a brand of rugby that excites people. He plays like he is on a field with his mates. Martin Johnson needs to take a great deal of credit for allowing him to play with such freedom.
"Although I would suggest that he has some set plays and restrictions that he must adhere to, coach Johnson's last instruction must be 'go and have fun son'. You don't want to over-coach him as then you will lose what makes him special, the unpredictability aspect.
"He plays Rugby Union in a Rugby League fashion. His support play is all about predicting what will happen next, thinking one or two phases ahead. He is hard to mark as he is putting himself in positions that defenders are not used to.
"From a Rugby Union point of view as a winger, he is miles out of position but he is making his own rules up. Teams are going to have to learn to adapt their defence when you play against him or else the opportunities will be there all the time.
"You don't get a true sense of the positions he is in from a TV view. If you happen to watch from behind the posts, you actually see how far he is running and the lines that he is running.
"He is obviously a joker and character but must have a real understanding of the game to keep producing the goods at the very highest level."
Like Javier Hernandez for Manchester United, poaching is not effortless work.
"It's not accidental," agrees former Ireland wing Denis Hickie.
"It's creative. You earn those opportunities. And he's doing it for a team playing well. Nobody notices the player making those runs in a team that can't go beyond three phases."
Hickie notes that the new law interpretations have supplanted the kick-fest that marked the 2007 World Cup with a game that utterly suits Ashton -- "quicker ball, then quicker phases and less time for defences to fix", avers Hickie.
Hence, to repel Ashton, one must repel England.
"Talk is a huge weapon," says D'Arcy. "I could be two out and not marking Ashton but I can be talking to the next guy and vice-versa. If he's out of my vision, someone can tell me to watch the inside. That's the key with support runners." And if Ashton vacates his wing and Ireland attack with defence, then there will be space behind. Because Ashton has only one thing on his mind.
"I just want to score tries," he says. "It's close to an addiction, if you like. I try and think back to when I was 14 or 15, and I was exactly the same.
"I'd chase anything as long as I got on the end of a try. I was so happy when I realised you can run off and do what you want in Rugby Union."
Tomorrow, he will seek to supplement his addiction against Ireland, the land where once his grandfather played GAA; well, at least Ashton reckoned it was a grandfather, as he explained before the Scotland game last week.
"It could have been a great-granddad," he admitted. It is perhaps the only time he has shown an inkling of doubt all season.