Chris Ashton smiles when I ask him if he would like to become the David Beckham of rugby union. “Yeah, if it means I become the best winger in the game.”
Then the Northampton back, who lit up England’s rugby season, adds: “I’m a lad from Wigan, I’m very down to earth. I don’t think I’ll ever change.”
Despite his trademark swallow dive when scoring a try, Ashton does not seek celebrity glory and is happy to let his rugby do the talking.
His second try for England against Australia last November was the result of an epic 90-metre run and was voted Try of the Year by the International Rugby Players’ Association. Against Italy three months later he became the first person to score four tries in a Six Nations international.
Ashton will be central to the Saints over the next two, maybe three, weekends which will define their season. On Saturday, they face Leicester in the Aviva Premiership play-off semi-final and victory there will mean a final against either Saracens or Gloucester on May 28. In between they will be flying the English flag in the Heineken Cup Final as they face Leinster at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
But, as we talk, the 24-year old is keen to deny he has even thought about the fact that he is now the country’s biggest rugby union star. “I don’t think of myself like that,” he says. “It’s not something I pay attention to.”
Then, just to prove this is not false modesty, he tells the story of being picked for England last year. Having been Premiership Player of the Season – an award he could retain at tonight’s awards ceremony in London – you would have expected him to wait by the phone for the call from Martin Johnson. But he explains. “I was at home watching a DVD, Hook starring Robin Williams. I did not expect Martin to call, I didn’t know what his number was. So, when the phone rang, I didn’t answer it. He left a message.”
Not that such modesty should be confused with any lack of ambition. Indeed, Ashton left rugby league for union – switching from Wigan Warriors to Northampton in 2007 – because he wanted the bigger stage the 15-man code provided.
“Union has a greater aura in this country, it’s a national sport. League’s definitely a northern game. Union may be more in the south but when it comes to England playing, everyone watches; millions. There are 80,000 at Twickenham every match. In league, if England are playing, you might get 20,000.”
The switch meant going against everything he was brought up on. As a child, he often accompanied his father, Kevin, who played as an amateur for the Wigan rugby union team.
“While my dad played, I just went straight off with my friends and messed around as you do as kids. I never knew union. I had never watched the professional game.”
His hero was Jason Robinson, a star in rugby league who went on to even greater heights in union, scoring England’s try in their 2003 World Cup Final triumph over Australia.
While Robinson proved the inspiration in him switching codes, it was actually the idea of his agent, who had helped others transfer over.
“Having seen what Jason Robinson had done in rugby union, I just thought why not? I can have a piece of that.”
Ashton also saw the change as an opportunity to move away from Wigan and to be different to his father.
“My dad, who passed away a year ago, was more set in his ways,” he says. “I wanted to be the complete opposite of that. I can’t sit still for 10 minutes, which is why I’ve never been a great reader. I’m not the kind of person who wants to stay in the same place for very long. I have been at Northampton four years and I’ve moved house every year.”
Not that it seemed he would settle at Franklin’s Gardens. Everything was so different the switch appeared a dreadful mistake.
“Only the balls are the same. The skills I had in rugby league really didn’t count for that much. In rugby league, it’s just six taps and a kick – it’s a lot simpler game. In union, you have to be more technical. I was starting again, a completely new game. There was a point when I was only just making the Northampton bench and it was a serious consideration that I might have to go back and apologise for the decision to go with rugby union. It took me three years to finally get hold of the game.”
The exhilaration he felt when he did explains the invention of the swallow dive, which got its first airing during the Six Nations opener in February.
“It was just the excitement of scoring against Wales in my first Six Nations game: 80,000 people in the Millennium and a massive build-up before the game,” he says. “I just remember getting a clean run in under the posts, it was like a burst, really. So, I thought it was a reason to celebrate.
“I hadn’t thought of it before. I didn’t even pay attention to it. I only realised what I’d done after the game when a few journalists asked me about it. Then I had a look at it and realised the ball was in a pretty stupid place. It was a stupid dive and I had managed to get quite high off the floor. It just went from there.”
Ashton does get a touch irritated when I mention that the swallow dive could make him drop the ball before scoring. “The more people go on about it I think the more chance it is going to happen,” he says.
But this is a rare moment in a man who sees the game as fun. Harlequins rugby league skipper Rob Purdham, his captain when Ashton played the 13-man game for England, told me last week: “Chris is a cheeky lad, the life and soul of the team. He’s chirpy all the time.”
Ashton laughs as I tell him that. “It’s something I’ve carried on from school to be honest. I was always the naughty lad. You don’t want to know all the naughty things I did. I was thrown out of classes a lot of times for causing trouble. I try to cause a lot of trouble in the dressing room.
“I try to mess around in training. I don’t see why not. We have fish oil tablets, which we put in people’s pockets so they’re smelling of fish for the rest of the day, things like that. You need someone to do that.”
It also helps that someone is able to combine fun with high skills, as in Ashton’s spectacular score against the Wallabies. For Ashton it remains “a surreal moment in my life”.
A bit like the Lionel Messi goal for Barcelona against Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final? “Yeah, you could say that. It’s one of those boyhood dreams that just happened. You think as a young lad I’m going to play rugby for England and I’m going to score a full length of the pitch try.”
Normally when he is on a run, Ashton says he is thinking of passing but that wasn’t an option that day. “There was no one around and I couldn’t hear anyone so I thought, I am on my own. I’ll just cut inside and, hopefully, there will be another one of our lads there. Or, at worst, they’ll catch me and we can get the ball and go again. But I happened to have the speed to get round and keep going right under the post. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
If that try was the sort of fantasy, Ashton is convinced England’s hopes of winning this year’s World Cup are based on the hard reality of good preparation. He seems genuinely surprised when I tell him John Steele, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, doesn’t expect England to win in New Zealand.
“Does he not? He might be saying it on purpose just so people don’t expect anything of us. Well, let’s hope we can surprise John Steele and win the World Cup. We did well in the autumn and did even better in the Six Nations.
“We’re getting better and better. We’re getting used to a lot of hype and to the experience. I don’t see why not. My greatest ambition is to win the World Cup this year and for me to be the best player.”
The All Blacks may be the favourites but that, for Ashton, is familiar pre-World Cup talk and he is not at all fazed by the Haka. “It’s fascinating to watch but I’m not intimidated, it does nothing for me. When they’re doing it, you just stand and stare back.”
Talk of this scripted rugby war dance makes Ashton contrast his game with the round ball’s unscripted wars. He says money is the reason why rugby players, league and union, are so much better behaved than footballers.
“There’s far too much money in football,” he says. “I’d never question a referee’s decision. That needs to be sorted out. Look at Barcelona v Real Madrid, in the first leg of their semi-final. It was embarrassing.
“We are better taught in rugby. Because you just get penalised and get sent back 50m, don’t you? So it’s damaging to your team. It’s not seen as something you do. The referee is in charge and you just let him get on with it. But in football that is non-existent.”