How Leicester Tigers have got Chris Ashton roaring again ahead of Leinster clash

Chris Ashton has been acclaimed for the ‘unbelievable’ try-scoring knack which has allowed him to revive his career at Leicester – and add to his personal haul of record-breaking feats.

Last weekend, the 35-year-old, cross-code wing scored a stunning hat-trick for the Tigers against Bristol, to surge ahead of Tom Varndell as the Premiership’s all-time top finisher – with 95 tries. 

He has his sights set on reaching a century, but first Ashton will hope to be in the match-day squad to face mighty Leinster at Welford Road on Saturday evening. If he does play against the Irish province, it will be an opportunity to enhance his European scoring record; another distinction on his CV.

Veteran wing Chris Ashton has been a man reborn since joining Leicester Tigers in February

That momentous quarter-final of the Heineken Champions Cup is just the sort of grand occasion which he must have feared he would never take part in again, after being released last December by Worcester. Ashton’s brief, ill-fated stint at Sixways followed similarly troubled spells at Harlequins and Sale. He appeared to be fading towards retirement, but Leicester offered him a shot and he has responded with a reminder of his enduring, predatory class.

His impact has provided a boost to the Tigers, as they chase domestic and continental honours. Their England scrum-half Ben Youngs paid tribute to Ashton – a long-time team-mate at international level – saying: ‘He’s gone through a fair few clubs, but he’s come here and settled in. He’s worked hard, he’s never given up in terms of what he wants and his standards have never dropped.

‘I tip my hat to him, he has an unbelievable knack of scoring tries. He’s very much like Jonny May; they just know how to score tries. Sometimes they score when there’s no right to do it, they just find a way.’

Against Bristol, Ashton’s long-range strike to clinch his hat-trick perfectly showcased his awareness, instinctive support play and eye for an opening. 

Youngs provided the assist and he added: ‘With Chris, you just know he’s going to be around you. As soon as I got the ball (in the Bristol game), I just knew he was going to be there – it was just about whether he went left or right. Compliments to him, it’s an incredible achievement. He’s been a great addition to the squad.’

He scored a hat-trick against Bristol on April 30 to be the Premiership's all-time top finisher

He scored a hat-trick against Bristol on April 30 to be the Premiership’s all-time top finisher

Steve Borthwick, Leicester’s head coach, offered his own tribute to the veteran, box-office recruit – as much because of his diligence behind the scenes as his on-field exploits. Asked what had changed since his move across the Midlands, he said: ‘I can’t compare him to when he was at Worcester, because I didn’t really know him then.

‘I knew him when I played alongside him (at Saracens) and there are a huge number of similarities; how hard he trains, how competitive he is and his thirst to get the ball. He works off his wing and finds the ball brilliantly. It’s so similar to when I played with him.

‘What he’s developed and added is how much he helps young guys. When I knew him before, he was a young man himself, but now he is a senior guy. He has been around, seen a lot of things and he is generous in imparting that to everyone else. He’s adding an enormous amount to our squad.’

Perhaps that is a clue to the most significant change, which has allowed Ashton to revive his career. His abrupt, premature departures from Worcester, Quins and Sale came amid rumours of tension and unrest.

Well-placed sources have suggested that Ashton’s ‘single-minded’ nature sometimes led to clashes with team-mates and coaches when standards fell below his sky-high expectations. His fierce drive and uncompromising attitude put several noses out of joint and within some squads this engaging character came to be seen as a divisive figure.

Ashton is at his sixth Premiership club but appears to have changed his mindset at Leicester

Ashton is at his sixth Premiership club but appears to have changed his mindset at Leicester

But his own commitment didn’t waiver and at Leicester – his sixth Premiership club – he appears to have found the right fit. The club are on a roll, he is familiar with the likes of Youngs and player-coach Richard Wigglesworth, he is working with a rugby league legend in Kevin Sinfield, his former agent, Richard Wilks, is at the Tigers now as head of performance recruitment – and Borthwick saw fit to gamble on him.

Having been jolted by the spectre of enforced retirement, Ashton’s gratitude has been evident in his work-rate and sheer enthusiasm. Speaking on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast, he said: ‘It’s amazing how quickly things can change.

‘I am desperate to be out there every week, because Steve and Leicester have given me a chance when no-one else would. Your career can go up and down – and you can find yourself in strange situations, as I did. I’ve been given a second wind so I don’t lack motivation to help this team.’

Having been made to feel supported and valued – and fortunate – it turns out the supreme finisher wasn’t finished after all.