It was a swallow dive that divided rugby and made headline news but now the man behind it announced that it will no longer be part of his act.
Chris Ashton scored a hat-trick of tries in Sunday’s win for England over the Barbarians at Twickenham but there was no sign of his infamous swallow dive and he vows that there will be no repeat of his swallow-diving that delighted and infuriated the sport in equal measures. Not in the next game, and indeed not ever.
“It’s done with,” he insisted. “I’ve knocked it on the head. I see it as an end of an era for me.”
The swallow dive became a permanent fixture during Ashton’s sensational 2010-11 season, when he was scoring multiple test tries for fun against Australia, Wales and Italy in particular, but it prompted the then England manager, Martin Johnson, to express his public concern over the action, and some international players to accuse the then Northampton winger of arrogance.
In his last game for the Saints on May 5th at home to Worcester in the Aviva Premiership – Ashton will play for Saracens next season – he scored his last try for the club before leaving the field with a back injury. He received widespread criticism for this although he insists he had injured himself earlier in the week.
“The back injury had nothing to do with the dive,” he said. “I’d injured the back during the week and there was always a good chance I wouldn’t come through the whole game.
“But it was a good place and time to pull off my last ever swallow dive, in my last game for Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in front of the home fans after my last ever try for the club.
“Some people have enjoyed it over the past few years, and some haven’t. Some have used it against me as well. I’m very aware of this. It usually happens after a bit of a run to the line when I have a few seconds to think about doing it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s instinctive. It’s thought out. That’s why I can stop doing it. It’s been a difficult year. A lot of it has been good – I was joint top try scorer at the world cup – but a lot of it hasn’t, and I see the end of this season as the time to start a new chapter. Stopping the swallow dive is definitely the best thing to be doing. I can’t say for sure that it will never happen again, but it’s certainly my intention starting against the Baa-Baas.”
Ashton’s reflective mood follows a season that saw him receive a suspended fine for his involvement in the Dunedin hotel employee incident during a world cup that ended with quarter-final defeat, a four week ban for pulling Leicester’s Alesana Tuilagi off the Welford Road pitch by his hair in December, and being dropped by an angry Northampton after it was announced in January that he would be moving to Saracens for next season. A falling-out with the team management followed after Ashton reacted angrily to his omission, before a frustrating RBS Six Nations ensued in which England, under the then interim management of Stuart Lancaster, fared well, but Ashton was starved of the ball.
“It’s been a difficult season,” he admitted. “It can’t always go well for you. It’s the nature of sport. These things come along to test you. If I can learn from it all and be a better player as a result then it will be a positive. Expectations soared after my first season with England and although I wasn’t aware of it at the time I now know that I placed a lot of pressure on myself. I’ve spent much of the season fighting against it but it’s been hard to ever quite emerge as incident after incident’s taken place.”
Under the Lancaster regime the world cup has been put to bed. “We’ve all learnt, especially me, from our mistakes in the world cup and how to conduct ourselves,” the 25-year-old explained. “The hair pulling was a complete accident. I honestly didn’t mean to do that.
“But the whole Saracens business with Northampton should have been handled better by me. For a time I didn’t have a happy relationship with Northampton after Christmas.
“When I learnt I’d been dropped I went flying in to Jim Mallinder’s office (Saints Director of Rugby). I should have kept my emotions in check. Jim wasn’t happy in the way I acted and I don’t blame him. If I could live my life again I’d have handled that differently.
“It’s just me. Things seem to happen to me. I’m gutted I wasn’t able to play for the Saints when they lost the play-off semi and I’m gutted I went off injured in what turned out to be my final game for the club.”
Then there was the Six Nations, in which a rejuvenated England, bolstered by the very Saracens players who will become Ashton’s teammates next season, won four out of five games and finished runners up without barely getting the ball out to their back three.
“I have mixed emotions about that,” he admitted. “Of course it’s great to be winning but I was also frustrated by my lack of involvement. I’m always happy if we win, but I wasn’t happy that I didn’t get my hands on the ball. We’ve spoken to Stuart about it. England can only be better if the back three get to run a bit.”
It may not happen too much next month in the three test tour in South Africa. “I hope it does but I’m also bracing myself for attritional rugby, and being smashed under box kicks. It will be a good test, though, of where this new team is.”
It may not happen next season either unless Saracens change their style. “I hope it does, otherwise why sign me? I’d be very disappointed if I spend half the season watching.”
Sarries like to market themselves but if Ashton starts to repay their faith in him by scoring tries then they will come without the dive.
“That’s history. I’m moving on.”