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'That literally changed my career... I sat there and cried in this room'

By Ian Cameron
Chris Ashton playing for Saracens in 2016 /Getty

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Chris Ashton says that a 10-week ban handed to him for allegedly gouging Ulster centre Luke Marshall ‘changed the direction of his career’.

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The former England winger denied that he gouged Marshall in an infamous incident in 2016 during a Heineken Champions Cup match between Saracens and Ulster at what was known then as Allianz Park.

The incident came just as Ashton was on the verge of breaking back into the England squad, which had just been taken over by new head coach Eddie Jones.

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Chris Ashton | Rugby Roots
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Chris Ashton | Rugby Roots

The eye gouge incident still haunts the Leicester Tigers winger, who recalled how he was left to defend himself in front of a disciplinary panel after being cited for the incident.

“At the end of 2015, Stuart [Lancaster] gets sacked and Eddie comes in,” Ashton told Jim Hamilton in a special Rugby Roots documentary for RugbyPass. “So I’m like ‘right, I’ve got a chance to get back in here’. We were going well at Saracens, I was doing well. Everything that Eddie was saying was positive.

“A week before the Six Nations starts in 2016, I got done for an eye gouge. That one literally changed my career. The direction of my career.

“I didn’t do it. I flat out didn’t do it. I can’t say that about all the bans.

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“That one I did not do. My hands were on his face for 0.006 of a second. You don’t gouge someone like that.

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“I literally sat there and cried in this room.

“This is my opportunity to get back in [with England], you can’t take this away from me. You could see the disciplinary man shaking his head ‘Nah, not having it’. He didn’t have any interest.

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“My England career is done here, if you don’t accept what I’m telling you is right. Nah, he didn’t want it. Ten weeks…TEN WEEKS!’

“And I spoke to Eddie [Jones] after it and he said “You’d have played mate, you’d have started.

“It was worse [for having been told that by Jones]. It was way worse.

“Again, it was another situation where people will say that was your own fault. You just have to take it as it is. I went back to type, trained as hard as I could.

“England in 2016, soon as Eddie came in, went on to win the Grand Slam. I’m sat at home and I’m like ‘Man, where do I go from here?’ I reverted to what I know. I trained harder. Played well at Saracens, ‘your chance will come’.

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“It never did. It never came.

“Because they were so successful, they just kept going and going and going.

“Eddie used to ring me. One of them, England were going on tour. I’d just got the man of the match in the semi-final, and I didn’t get in [to the England squad]. It doesn’t make any sense.

“He rang me and said that my defence percentage wasn’t high enough. It probably was, he’s probably right. At the time it didn’t feel right.

“I thought I should have been in there and I’d done enough to get my chance back. Once that was shut, my mind’s like ‘This is over here”. I’ve got to change.

“We’d been successful at Saracens, that’s all I ever wanted in England was to be a success and win trophies and I’d done that. The last thing was to play for England again and it was gone, the door was shut. It was clear to me that Eddie didn’t want me in there.”

Ashton would sign for Toulon. It would prove a masterstroke for the Wigan native, who went on to break the Top 14 try-scoring record in his first season.

“I was like ‘we have to change, and do something else’ and France was the next door that opened.”

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