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'He could win 100 caps - he's f***ing talented': Ewan Ashman by those who know him

By Jamie Lyall
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Neil Briggs remembers the day a strapping teenage front-row fetched up for his first training session at Sale Sharks academy.

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Ewan Ashman was unknown back then, to Sale’s coaches as much as the Scotland fans who erupted when his glorious debut try helped scalp the Wallabies on Sunday.

The hooker had been invited along to Carrington for what was, in effect, a trial. Sale had scant information on the kid, merely the fervent words from a team-mate that Ashman had serious potential.

“This big thing walks in – athletic, bigger than the other lads,” Briggs, the academy transition coach and a former hooker himself, recalls. “He had really quick foot speed with no knee-lift. He ran really good lines. He was tough. He was diligent. He was too good not to sign.”

Alan Tait would soon experience a similar lightbulb moment. A dual-code international, Lion and Five Nations champion, Tait was working as Scottish Rugby’s scout, charged with scouring the north of England for eligible youngsters.

Gregor walked past me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I like the hooker’. I gave him a wink and a nod.

He parked up at an academy fixture, and was struck by the muscular specimen laying waste for the Sharks side.

“When I first watched him, I was like, ‘this kid is bloody good, let’s go’.

“When I’m looking at a player, I’m not looking at his line-out throw – that’s a skill, that can get better. He’s 17, if he loses a line-out, so what? But his physique, footwork, balance… he’s a player for the future.

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“The way he moved, the way he carried, I knew he had in his armoury the tools to go all the way.”

Ashman soared onto the Test stage and the front pages with his outrageous score against Australia. The aerial, two-handed finish into Murrayfield’s northwest corner, keeping his legs poised above the touchline while slamming the ball down, was a mark of athletic ruthlessness. Cheslin Kolbe, Will Jordan, or Jonny May – any of the game’s top wingers – would have been proud of such a try, never mind a 21-year-old hooker winning his first cap off the bench.

“I think I’m just a winger in a fat person’s body,” quipped Ashman post-match. “I was thinking of doing a rugby league one-hander but I thought I could sneak in with two hands so better safe than sorry.”

To those invested in his growth, Ashman always stood apart from the crowd. Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach, has long been eyeing his progress eagerly.

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Ewan Ashman
Ashman’s stunning try helped Scotland beat Australia for the third time in a row (Photo by Paul Devlin/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“He came up to play for Scotland Under-18s in a bounce game against Australia at the Oriam,” says Tait. “He stuck out, and he’d only just met his team-mates. He hadn’t been in a Scottish academy playing in the system.

“Gregor walked past me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I like the hooker’. I gave him a wink and a nod. He knew we had a talent there.”

When he scored seven tries at the 2019 Junior World Championship, others began paying closer attention to Ashman’s burgeoning excellence.

“People started taking notice then, but we’d seen (his ability) the whole time,” says Briggs.

“I remember when he made his first-team debut. First thing he did, he got the ball, made a break down the wing and sat two blokes down. I thought, ‘bloody hell, that’s brilliant’. Give young a lad a chance and he does that. He just grows, especially in the coaches’ minds.

“He’s always been in the Scotland pathway and we’ve never thought of stepping in or denying him that opportunity. We want people to play for their country.”

Indeed, born in Toronto and raised in Manchester, Ashman has always yearned to wear thistle, not rose, a belonging instilled in him by father, Jonathan, a fiercely passionate Edinburgh man.

He’s got a contract with Sale but he’s got to look at his future. Edinburgh are getting towards veteran stage with their hookers. He may see himself playing for Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Matt Proudfoot, the England forwards coach and a former Scotland prop, was sent north to Sale to test the waters. It would prove a short conversation.

“I listened to what they had to say but it was never a decision for me as I’m Scottish,” Ashman told the Sunday Times in September. “I told Gregor he had nothing to worry about and I’d be at the next camp.”

Ask Briggs about what makes Ashman such a prospect, and the word “relentless” pops up. The hooker is built like a New York fire hydrant, slabs of hard-earned muscle belying his tender years. Set-piece acumen has been equally tough to acquire.

“What I see is his desire, hunger and commitment to get better,” says Briggs. “Physically, in the gym with his extras, you see the size of him and the work he does to get himself in that nick has been brilliant.

“On the field, I’ve thrown with him nearly every other day over the past few years. That didn’t come as naturally to him as the other stuff and he’s well aware of that.

“He has not let things fluster him; he has a clear mindset. Yes, he hasn’t played as much as he possibly wanted to, but the competition and training, the lads he’s having to compete with, is testing him, challenging him. He’s able to go into the Scotland environment, not be overwhelmed, be ready for it and come on and excel.”

There is, though, no escaping the fact Ashman is the youngest of Sale’s four senior hookers, and lowest on the totem pole. Akker van der Merwe – the Springbok elder brother of Duhan – Curtis Langdon and Tommy Taylor all have more experience and more seniority, and have restricted Ashman to a couple of bench appearances this season.

Sale Sharks Akker Van Der Merwe
Akker van der Merwe heads up a posse of high-calibre hookers at Sale Sharks (Photo by PA)

The Scot needs top-level game time to become a regular international. And there have been murmurs recently about a move north which could provide those minutes.

“He’s got a contract with Sale but he’s got to look at his future,” says Tait. “Edinburgh are getting towards veteran stage with their hookers. He may see himself playing for Edinburgh or Glasgow.

“He’s third- or fourth-choice for Sale, so he’s got to get himself playing more for them.”

In keeping with Sale’s policy at the time, Ashman signed a long-term deal when joining the academy. He has at least one season after this remaining on his deal, and the Sharks see him as part of their long-term vision.

Ewan has got the potential to win 100 caps for Scotland. Easily. He’s got that mindset, that drive, that desire. And he’s f***ing talented. Sorry for swearing, but he is so talented.

Neil Briggs, Sale Sharks

“We’ve got no plans to let him go anywhere,” says Briggs. “We hope he’s going to be a hundred-capper for us.”

And there is a tantalising opportunity for Ashman to make the Scotland jersey his own in years to come. He is 11 years younger than Fraser Brown, a decade Stuart McInally’s junior, and even George Turner, whom he replaced early on Sunday, is now 29.

“Ewan has got the potential to win 100 caps for Scotland. Easily,” enthuses Briggs. “He’s got that mindset, that drive, that desire. And he’s f***ing talented. Sorry for swearing, but he is so talented.

“And they’ve probably not seen everything that we’ve seen here. His ball-carrying, he is a dynamic, destructive ball-carrier and he can whack in defence as well.”

“We used to talk, as scouts, about the Scottish type of player,” says Tait. “It might sound daft, but sometimes you see a player who suits the Scottish way of playing. We have our own identity. I used to look for players who properly fit that. He’s that kind of hooker.

“I can only see him getting better. He’ll gain confidence from the Scotland exposure. He’s done it all – I’m excited about his future.”

In the here and now, the challenges keep coming, the juggernaut sides keep rolling into Edinburgh, and Ashman keeps his place in the 23. He will be on the bench again this Saturday as the behemoth Springboks arrive at Murrayfield. Another level up, another mighty test, and another step on this exhilarating journey.

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