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England’s great new hope

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What a difference a year can make. Last March, if you were stopped and asked, Family Fortunes style, to name an England rugby player, you’d probably have said James Haskell or Jonny Wilkinson.

Now, a record-breaking number of tries later, the name Chris Ashton would be right up there. He’s his country’s big bet, not only for this year’s 6 Nations, but also the World Cup in New Zealand come winter. No pressure, then…

How have the past few months been? Your fame level has rocketed…

Yeah, you could say that. But I’ve just been concentrating on rugby more. It’s pretty hard to notice anything else when you’re with the lads all the time. It might be different after the 6 Nations.

How’s the spirit in the England camp right now?

It’s good. It’s been re-energised. There’s a good mixture of old and young in there and we’re all getting on. Winning is a massive part of it – it changes people’s moods and how they train. People are more relaxed now. I tend to sit next to Ben Foden and if he was any more relaxed he’d be constantly lying down.

Who’s the squad’s joker?

People might say me, but I don’t like it. I’m just trying to be myself. I’m not being any different to what I normally am, so I really wouldn’t like it if they said I was.

You’ve not been in the team that long – did you have to go through any initiation ceremonies?

When you play for England for the first time, you have to have a drink with everyone in the team. That’s one drink with each person, and it’s whatever they want to have. So after my debut [against France in March 2010], I was battered.

How important is it to win the 6 Nations going into the World Cup later in the year?

It would mean we’re going in the right direction. There’s a lot of pressure [in the 6 Nations] – it’d show we can come through that. We have a few friendlies before the World Cup, but, really, this Ireland game is our last match. Winning would be a massive confidence booster. Facing New Zealand on their own turf won’t be easy, though…[Laughs] I think they’re a pretty good team whatever country they’re in. I don’t think them being at home makes a difference. But New Zealand is such a massive rugby country, I don’t know if that will put them under more pressure. We’ll have to wait and see.

How confident are the England squad about their World Cup chances?

A lot of stuff can happen to individuals as well as the team, but you’ve got to be confident, haven’t you? You’ve got to think you’re going to win, or there’s no point in being there. But it’s a long time between now and then – I’m just hoping to be on the plane.

Your club, Northampton, have been on a bit of a bad run since you’ve been away on international duty – that must frustrate you…

Yeah, it does frustrate me. We had a rest week [a fortnight ago] and we could have gone back to play for our clubs. I understand the need to rest when we have big games coming up, but it’s hard to watch your team lose when you could be on the pitch. During the autumn internationals they played well and won every game, but it’s a long season and it might be having an effect on the lads.

Your swan dive tries are a bone of contention for many, including Martin Johnson – have you ever dropped the ball while doing one?

No. But I don’t practise it. [Doing it in training is] not something Martin would be pleased about. James Haskell, Danny Care and Doran Jones all tried it, but I think they were unsuccessful. If I did drop it, I don’t think I’d ever play for England again.

OK, so England are four points down in the last minute of the World Cup Final. You go clear through – do you do it?

No chance! Although, I say that now. Sometimes it just takes over. If I had enough time [to think], it would definitely go through my head.

Surely moments of flair, like the swan dive, are a good thing in terms of popularising the game?

Yes and no. I like the traditional side – that it’s a gentleman’s game and should stay that way. But if it just brings a bit more attention to the game and brightens it up for the kids so they get involved and play rugby, then that’s a good thing.

Do you think it would help England to have a Haka-like dance to intimidate teams before matches?

I think we should have a morris dance. It’s English, and it’s got a nice little tune to go with it. It would put teams right off.

Nike.com/uk

(Images: Rex Features)

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