Rugby Retro: Chris Ashton on beating the All Blacks
By James Gemmell
Last Updated: 06/06/20 9:34am
"Well I actually didn't have much to do, as with a lot of my tries, I don't really have much to do. Just follow the right people. And on that day, as is often the case with England, it was Manu Tuilagi."
Twickenham in late autumn is one of the darkest and coldest places on earth, with a concrete-formed micro-climate. It's where thermal socks go to die, and where the smuggling of hip flasks is not a risk but a necessity. It is also the scene, of course, of England's annual home battles with the Southern Hemisphere.
The opening weekend of November can sometimes cheat us with its rugby romance, the sun still peeping over the North-West corner into the second half. But a month later, as mid-afternoon darkness descends during the warm-ups, it really can test your mettle; fans, players, stewards, the lot.
And so it was for the final autumn tie of 2012. There was little to suggest that one of England's most inspired home performances was imminent.
Certainly the arrival of the world champion All Blacks, unbeaten for over a year and 80 minutes from their beaches and barbies, didn't help the mood. England's results in the weeks preceding meant the media glare matched that of the spotlights needed to illuminate the famous old stadium.
Chris Ashton, a man for the spotlight it must be said, picks up the story on the latest episode of Sky Sports' Rugby Retro.
"We were under a lot of pressure, we'd lost against South Africa, we'd lost against Australia at home…so to go in against New Zealand, against a team that had come off the back of winning a World Cup, and then gone on a 20-game winning streak, there was a lot of pressure.
"We all knew that, Stuart knew that…you could see the staff were all feeling it too."
After the ignominy of England's showing at Rugby World Cup 2011, new coach Stuart Lancaster was attempting to bring a fresh culture, and some fresh faces, to the fore. He, and his team, desperately needed a performance to hang their first-year hat on.
Sky's lead commentator Miles Harrison had made his usual pilgrimage to England's training base during the week.
"Chris might've seen me, I'm that strange guy hanging around the training pitch just watching…and I sneaked in for a little longer that day with Stuart Lancaster and I got to see, to be honest, how angry you were as a group. I mean, you were really up for it.
"I'd taken that into the weekend thinking 'England have got a real chance here, if they can channel that, if they can put that passion in a place which is a positive, not a negative, I think they're going to be a handful'."
The two defeats that fuelled the fire were the outcome of muddled thinking, of a team still finding their way with each other. To end 2012 with an unlikely win, England needed clear heads and a fast start. They got both.
"We were constantly on top, in every area, from early in the game. Generally you don't get that with New Zealand, they get the head start.
"So we managed to do that, with Owen (Farrell)'s kicking…and winning the little battles. But you know at some point New Zealand are always going to come back. They'll always find a way to score tries and come back at you, and it's just managing that, and managing a way to try and stay in front."
The 12-0 half-time scoreline reflected England's dominance, but it was by no means a match-winning lead. The best try-scoring chance of the half had gone to Ashton, who may or may not have crossed, but dropped the ball cold so will never know. He can laugh about it now.
"Yeah I didn't fancy it did I?!! There was about three or four New Zealanders coming across too, so even if I had caught it…I'd have got smashed into touch anyway. There wasn't that many opportunities and that was one, and I was pretty gutted. I just snatched at it!"
Harrison's pre-game instincts were holding at the break, if only just.
"…but it's New Zealand. You know New Zealand are going to come back, you know they are going to create chances, and within a split second it seemed, in that second half, New Zealand were back in the game."
Tries to Julian Savea and Kieran Read turned 15-0 to 15-14, and a familiar pall fell over Twickenham. Ashton could feel it too.
"I'd been there before, and it'd happened before. It's a strange ability that New Zealand have to just go try, try, try so quickly…the players they have, the ability they have to score a try out of nothing, is sometimes impossible to stop. So having experienced that before, and lost, I could feel it was coming."
But rather than succumbing to the wave of pressure or withdrawing into themselves defensively, England countered. What followed was eight minutes of All Black-like attack, and three tries that secured the win and a had dark, cold Twickenham in a frenzy of disbelief.
The most memorable of all was scored by Ashton, but it was created, or rather bludgeoned, by Manu Tuilagi. Off the top of an attacking lineout just inside New Zealand's half, the ball found Tuilagi in midfield, who powered through Dan Carter's tackle, swatted away an outstretched Richie McCaw and barely noticed Aaron Smith. An audacious double-pump dummy kept full-back Ben Smith interested so that when the perfect pass hit Ashton, he could speed across with plenty of time for 'The Splash'.
"When he first came on the scene, he was like something people have never seen before and…the way he ran through for my try, he ran through about five New Zealand players, which just doesn't happen."
Harrison remembers it similarly.
"When you take a step back, the nature of that try was so important, it was a body blow to New Zealand, literally."
Either side of that famous score, Brad Barritt crossed, and as the All Blacks frantically tried to respond, Tuilagi himself picked up an intercept and trotted across to put the result beyond doubt.
Elsewhere Tom Wood and Owen Farrell had coming-of-age performances as the team managed the mounting pressure, both pre-game and during it as well. 38-21 remains New Zealand's heaviest defeat at the hands of England, and their second equal biggest defeat in history.
"What's so impressive about the England performance is that they had to go again. They had to go and win it again, and that took a remarkable effort from the team against the world champions. When you factor in where this sits in the history of great England performances, you really need to remember that point."
Almost eight years, and many 'Splashes' later, Ashton remembers the moment with the greatest fondness.
"I just wish - and I wish now that I'm getting older…that feeling that I get of scoring is something that I wish I could bottle up and keep. I wouldn't give it away, I'd keep it for myself. No matter what the try is, the feeling's always the same, and hopefully it stays like that."