May 20 2013 Latest news:
By James Cunliffe
Saturday, September 15, 2012
Chris Ashton used to dream of playing rugby at Wembley Stadium but he couldn’t have envisaged, as a boy growing up in Wigan, that he’d make his debut on the hallowed turf playing union.
Today the winger will make only his third Premiership appearance for English heavyweights Saracens when they battle Leicester Tigers at the home of rugby league’s Challenge Cup final.
He’s hit the ground running at his new club after switching from Northampton Saints in the summer, scoring three times in his opening two games.
This afternoon, if he carries on his impressive introduction to life in the black and red it will fulfil a boyhood goal, of sorts.
Asked if he’d ever dreamed about crossing the whitewash at Wembley, Ashton replied: “Yeah, for Wigan.”
For eight consecutive years in the eighties and nineties the Cherry and Reds made as much of a home of the famous corner of north London than it’s more illustrious tenants, the English national football team.
“I went every year for 20 years or so,” the England international said on watching the likes of Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards lift cup after cup.
But his last trip to Wembley as a punter, before he started making a name for himself in the Wigan youth ranks, was an unhappy one as he saw his beloved Warriors – the most successful side in the Challenge Cup ever – lose 17-8 to Sheffield Eagles.
Fourteen years later, a change of code, England recognition and many try-scoring swallow dive celebrations later Ashton is hoping to make his first appearance as a player at Wembley a successful one, just like he did on the opening day of the season at Twickenham.
“I liked being part of the London double-header,” he said, reflecting on his two scores in a dominant 40-3 rout of London Irish at Rugby HQ.
Looking ahead to this afternoon, Ashton added: “It’s not every day that your club game is at Wembley.
“Even if it’s not full it’s still 50,000 people. I’ve never played at Wembley before so I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s only Saracens that do this sort of thing.
“I used to go every year but it was a bit different then and different circumstances now, but it’s still Wembley.”
Indeed, that it will be playing the 15-man code is something that Ashton is now extremely comfortable with.
“It’s completely different now from when I first came over [to union], but now I see it that this is the game I play,” the speedy marksman said, adding: “This is the game that I want to play until the end of my career.
“I’m just looking forward to playing for Saracens there and we might play there [Wembley] a few times this year.
“Hopefully we can get another win.”
Unbeaten records are on the line for both Sarries and Leicester, who do battle for the first time since the Tigers wrecked the London club’s dreams of retaining their Premiership crown in last year’s play-off semi-final.
Ashton has only ever faced the Tigers as a Saints player in keenly contested East Midlands derbies, but today he’s hoping to help stamp Sarries’ change of style on the Welford Road club renowned for throwing the ball about.
Pigeon-holed as a functional, kick and chase side, set in their ways, Saracens have already set about changing people’s perceptions this term – that they can play a more attractive brand of rugby.
“We weren’t lying,” Ashton explains. “The year that they won it [the Premiership] they stuck to a game plan and it worked but now I think they know you can’t always do that and get away with it.
“Teams like Leicester win games by scoring tries so this weekend we’ve got the perfect chance to match them at that and move it around and hopefully it will be a good game of rugby.”
So accustomed as a Northampton player to being the bridesmaids and never the brides when the big prizes were handed out at the end of the season, Ashton sees no reason that his new side can’t claim both Premiership and Heineken Cup glory.
He said: “I’m hoping to get to both finals – I don’t see why we can’t. We’ve got the squad here and the strength and depth is definitely here.”
Should they achieve it, that would see Sarries gracing both Twickenham and Dublin’s Aviva Stadium within the space of one potentially glorious week in May.
For now though, Wembley will do just fine for Ashton.