Six Nations Exclusive - Chris Ashton

Six Nations Exclusive - Chris Ashton

The Six Nations heads into a break this weekend with the Irish in a strong position following their dominant wins over France and Italy. Throughout the Six Nations Gambling Zone will be teaming up with former England internationals Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley as they give their round-by-round insights to the tournament.

It doesn’t stop there! In this month's edition of our video podcast In The Zone, presenter Manish Bhasin sits down with 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Mike Tindall, which you can watch below.

Get Chris' thoughts on round two below.


Round Two Review

I thought that, overall, some of the games in round two were a little bit disappointing. With so many teams in a transitional period, It was always likely that some of the games wouldn’t be the best spectacles. 

England and Wales have lost a lot of experienced players and have several new guys in the team. France are in a similar position. Italy are doing better, but they are still limited when you compare them to the other teams in the tournament. 

It’s only really Ireland that have stood out so far. They look like the team that have managed to move on from the disappointment of their World Cup and continued the form they showed that got them to the number 1 team in the world.

Apart from Ireland, we’re still seeing most teams trying to figure out who they are and how they want to play. 

After some tricky calls this weekend, do you have any sympathy for the job that referees have to do? 

Yeah I have sympathy for the refs, especially for the decision not to award Scotland a try against France. 

What happened with Wayne Barnes and TMO Tom Foley at the World Cup, the death threats and everything else, the abuse they received, there is always going to be doubts about tight calls at the end of the games as a result of that. The guys would have known they would be under a massive amount of pressure to get the call right and it’s only human nature for all officials to be in a position where they don’t want to have to make those big calls in the dying minutes 

Managing the dwell time between matches

This season is a new experience for the players with the week off and no premiership in between. It’sa different way of doing things. We’ve had twenty or twenty-one games on the bounce in the Premiership and the European Cups, so some lads won’t have played a game for seven or eight weeks if they are in camp and not being selected to play.

The lads that in camp are getting a very high level of training done under great intensity, but some lads will need match minutes. Danny Care for example, he’s played two tests and probably done about half an hour. Danny doesn’t need to play for his club to show Steve Borthwick what he can do, but if you were a young player in this England squad who hasn’t played as much, then going back to your club and playing competitive games gives them the opportunity to show Steve what they can do. We don’t have that benefit now. 

There is a big long break for players to get their heads round, which is a different way of fitting the tournament into the schedule. We will only see if the new schedule has been of a benefit in England once the six nations is over.

Scotland vs France

One of the biggest talking points was the “no-try” that happened at the end of the Scotland vs France game – what were your thoughts on that? 

I think it was a try and Scotland can feel hard done by that they didn’t win the match.  These types of incidents make it harder for rugby to grow as a sport and make it harder for the game to increase in popularity.

If you’re a casual rugby fan watching the game at home on Saturday and that happens, you’re thinking to yourself: “Wooah. Hang on, the ball is on the line but the ref hasn’t given a try.”

You have to understand what the referee is saying, how he communicates with the TMO and how that is presented. If the ref doesn’t say: “I’ve not seen the ball grounded, can you prove otherwise?” Then you have to find that definitive angle and what happened on Saturday proved that there wasn’t one. I think everyone that was watching could tell that the ball was on the ground. 

I’m not sure how the ref couldn’t see it to be honest – he was more or less in the ruck – so I’m not sure how he missed it. 

I was disappointed for Scotland. I was hoping they were going to beat France at home.  Its always easy to see in hindsight, but Finn Russell didn’t even have a look out wide; he was so focussed on the ruck that was happening in front of him, which is really unlike the way that he normally plays because he normally sees everything. If he had just looked outside, there were three or four men out wide. Finn made the point afterwards where he said they can’t rely on a referees decision to win them games, but I think Scotland would have been kicking themselves afterwards they had opportunity elsewhere to win the game without controversy.  

Is there a lack of killer instinct in this Scotland team? 

It seems like Scotland struggle to take advantage of teams when they have the upper hand in games. It is almost like they are a better team when they are coming from behind and that pushes them on more. 

Against Wales, they were in control of the game, and they lost control and nearly lost that one. Against France, again, they were in control of the game, and I think they got a couple of decisions wrong where they went for scrums rather than looking for three points before half time when France lost a man. Not capitalising on that is a mistake at this level. 

To then lose the game in the last ten minutes, it shows me that Scotland are not getting to grips with or are able to handle being in front and finishing off test matches. 

There was a good five-minute period in the second half where Russell and Ramos were just kicking the ball to each other. Nobody was moving – do we need to look at changing the laws? 

 World Rugby do need to look at the laws. I feel like this is something that should be addressed before the next game, but it is likely something like that will have to wait until the summer. 

The on-side chaser or the kicker has to be the one that puts everyone onside. It should be until that point that you can’t move, but at the moment we have a situation where the kicker kicks the ball and can stand wherever he wants, which is sixty metres in the back field having not moved. Everyone that is ahead of him has to wait for the catcher to move five metres before they can start running forwards, so we’re losing any kind of counterattack opportunity and also losing the ability to make forwards tired to create more space. 

It played into France’s hands if you’re Scotland and you can’t move some of their bigger lads around

Exactly. It did play into France’s hands because they weren't being asked to run around. France can play with bigger men, play a slower game. The one at the weekend was ridiculous because they didn’t move for a good few minutes, which isn’t great for the viewer. 

England vs Wales

George Ford’s charged down conversion

With this decision, I think the confusion came because George wanted to run the clock down to help the sin bin time go down. He wanted to use the full minute to help his team restore numbers as quickly as possible. The problem was, George was far too casual about how he went about it. He took too long, and it was almost like he forgot to take the extra step because it was a easy kick  for a player like George.

This happens when kickers don’t go through a full routine because you just want to take the kick quickly and get it through without it being charged down. It seemed like he just forgot that he wanted to use that extra step. 

A lot of the talk pre-game was on recreating the connection between the crowd and the team. Did that happen on Saturday? 

I didn’t see any lack of effort from the England players in terms of building that connection with the crowd. I think all of the players were trying their hardest and wanted to show an improved performance. 

I don’t know if it’s because this group hasn’t spent quite enough time together playing yet and things aren’t gelling as quickly as we hoped they would, which is why the performances haven’t been as clinical as they could be. 

England have had five debutants. We’ve had some big injury losses in key positions like Ollie Lawrence, who was playing so well at Bath. Marcus Smith is out, and it would have been interesting to see how these guys would have fit into the team because both have been excellent in the Premiership this season. 

We've lost George Martin in the second row who was excellent at the World Cup. We haven’t got too many big ball carriers in the first XV at the minute, which is hindering the attack and doesn’t give the backs the platform they want and when England have had opportunities they have made more handling errors than they will be happy with.

I don’t think the performances are down to a lack of endeavour or effort; the guys are trying their best. We’re just missing this little piece that holds everything together. 

Before the game, I thought that we would be fifteen points better than Wales on the day. Playing at Twickenham against a much less experienced Wales team, I really thought that we would come out on top. That didn’t happen. Wales were in the entire game and were taking risks, playing all over the pitch. Their kicking was high risk, which can either come go one way or another, I admired their endeavour 

Both teams had their moments where they could have won the game. When Wales broke around the fifty-five-minute mark, Josh Adams not coming inside was the game for Wales. Had the Welsh scored then, I don’t think England would have got back into the game. 

England worked back. Stop the try and then they went: Scrum. Penalty, Won the box kick. Scrum. Penalty. In the corner. Try. They went 95 metres in two minutes and that was the moment that swung the game in Englands favour.  

England have won both games despite there being room for improvement. Have you seen enough to give you confidence for the remainder of the tournament? 

The two victories definitely makes things easier for the players. The England camp and squad environment is a much better place to be in when there are two wins on the board. 

The pressure can mount in the Six Nations. If you don’t win both of your opening games, then fear can creep in about playing style and everything else. England don’t have those fears and now they can enjoy two full weeks of training before they travel to Scotland. The fixtures have been favourable to England. The players and Steve Borthwick will know that the real test is coming over the next three games when they take on Scotland, Ireland and France. 

Having not beaten Scotland in three years, to go up to Murrayfield and play a Scotland team that will be disappointed with what happened against France, will be a very difficult challenge. 

Are you expecting Borthwick to make any changes for that Scotland game? 

I think that George Martin has been really good for Leicester this season and he will come into the matchday squad.

Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence have got to come back into the squad simply because of the genetics they offer. They are bigger and stronger than anything that we have in the squad, and you need to make sure that you’re making the most of that when they are available. I think we will definitely see one of those two boys back in the match day twenty-three or potentially starting the game. 

Steve Borthwick will be facing a selection headache. Does he keep the same twenty-three players that have given him two wins at the tournament so far or does he bring a bit of the X Factor into the squad? 

On Wales

They’ve lost two from two, but what are the positives they can take from the tournament so far? 

Unfortunately for Wales, I don’t think that it is that much of a surprise that they have lost their two games at the Six Nations. 

I think Waleshave to understand and identify the players that are going to be in the team for the next six or seven years and build their team around them. They have some lads in the squad that have been thrown in at the deep end who have hardly played any first team rugby, but the situation in Welsh rugby at the minute has given these guys an opportunity. 

They need the five or six players that they can build their team around to establish themselves. They have some wonderful young talented players coming through.

Some of the young welsh players probably would not have been given the chance under different circumstances, so they have take the experience and enjoy the opportunity  they have. They would have had get more club experience and slowly brought through the system, but they haven’t been given that time. These inexperienced players are doing well in difficult circumstances, but there is a big difference between doing well and pushing teams close to winning test matches and Gatland knows that better than anyone. 

On Ireland

What are your thoughts on some of the new players that are coming through? How do you think Calvin Nash has settled in to the team? 

Calvin has been in good form all year. He has had a great season at Munster and is such a strong carrier. I think that he has done well in his first few international games. He has been helped by the fact that he is going into such a strong Ireland team. 

Everyone knows their role in the team, and they are so efficient. The team are creating spaces around the edges of the pitch and it’s a really nice team to be in if you play as a winger. I think he has done well. 

Andy Farrell said things will get tougher from here. With Wales up next, do you think that is Farrell trying to keep the team grounded and is complacency the biggest fear for this Ireland team?

Unfortunately, in rugby, we always want to play everything down and not get too carried away with performances and how things are going. 

I think for Farrell’s players, when they get past Wales, which I have no doubt they will, I do think there will be some sort of dramatic unexpected win in the tournament somewhere in this Six Nations because there always is. 

Will Wales throw that up? I don’t think so, so that sets up something for England vs Ireland at Twickenham. That will be a great occasion. I think if you’re Andy Farrell you need to play down all of the noise and take it one game at a time. There is an opportunity to make history with back-to-back Grand Slams.

If they do secure back-to-back Grand Slams, would you put this Ireland team up there with the All Blacks? The Italy coach made a similar comparison following his teams loss to Ireland on Sunday. 

I’d love to put this Ireland team in the same category of some of those all-conquering All Blacks teams, but there is a big difference between winning a Grand Slam and winning a World Cup. Ireland know that better than anybody having not been able to progress to a World Cup semi-final in their history. 

Within Europe, Ireland have definitely been the best team, but they haven’t been able to demonstrate that at a World Cup, which is their only Achilles heel if we are comparing them with the likes of South Africa and the All Black. 

Top The Top Performers

I think Tommy Reffell deserves to be mentioned after some of the performances that he has put in for Wales – he has always been a breakdown and turnovers specialist, but he was hitting lines and getting himself all over the place at Twickenham at the weekend. 

Winnett has impressed me for Wales also. When you consider that he’s only played fifteen professional games of club rugby, he’s making breaks every week and hitting lines that you would expect from a really experience player. 

Ben Earl was great again for england so far in this six nations with a man of the match display against wales.

James Lowe has been outstanding for Ireland. His all-round game as a winger works perfectly for the Irish set-up. His kicking ability, the way that he’s reading   defencive situations and finishing tries from ten metres out taking 4 players with him. 

You don’t usually see a team using a players full set of attributes but Ireland aredefinitely doing that with Lowe. Whether that is clearance kicking, carrying, linking or catching high balls, Ireland get the best out of the back three players. The system really works for them. 


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