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Ashton finds love for rugby again in Leicester

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At the turn of the New Year, you wouldn’t have been off the mark in thinking you may never see Chris Ashton play another Premiership game.

Especially as the man himself thought it was all over.

The fact it would be for Leicester Tigers would have been even more farfetched. Don’t worry, he agrees with you on that too.

But, more of that later.

β€œLook, let me say, being back and playing is one thing, but actually playing well and contributing is what I want to be doing."

Second place on the all-time try-scorers’ list in Premiership Rugby seemed the highest Ashton’s name would sit, settling for being atop Europe’s tally only - which is still some achievement.

Albeit, if you know him, not enough.

Driven, professional, competitive are just a few of the words used to describe him.

Fast-forward a few months and not only is he now in first place on the Premiership’s try leaderboard, he’s got his future sorted after agreeing a new deal with Leicester Tigers beyond the current campaign.

“Honestly, I thought it was all over,” says Ashton, leaning on one of the crowd dividers on the Mattioli Woods Welford Road terrace after putting pen to paper on an extension with the club.

“From where I was when I turned up, to now have signed a new contract here at the club is incredible.

“For me, I think it might be one of my best achievements - certainly up there as one of them.”

As for how it happened, he recalls: “It started with a phone call from Steve [Borthwick] to see if I wanted to come in and have a chat, discuss where I was at and what I was doing.”

Ashton and Steve Borthwick weren’t strangers.

The pair had played alongside one another for club and country, with Richard Wigglesworth - another who accepted an offer from Borthwick to restart, for want of a better word, in Leicester and play a part in building something at Tigers.

There were no other offers, he isn’t hiding that.

In his typically straight-talking way, he says: “I was training alone and annoying my wife every day, that was about it.”

“She’s probably happier than I am that I’m here every day.”

While he wasn’t fielding offer after offer, the honest-to-a-fault Ashton admits interest on his side was also waning.

“I have been able to understand again why I love rugby, which I lost during my time off and lost with some of the experiences I have had recently,” says the 35-year-old.

“Being here, where the club is at, and a part of this group has made me find that enjoyment again.

“The environment Steve has created, the group that is here, I am so glad to be able to agree a new deal and be able to keep contributing.”

The irony isn’t lost on him either, he agrees it is something he never saw coming.

So, standing on the same terrace steps where, for more than a decade, thousands of Tigers fans have done their best to make Ashton’s experience of playing in Leicester a miserable one, he is more than happy to address the elephant in the room.

“No, definitely not, I never thought I would ever be a Leicester Tigers player,” he says with a smile and a nod.

Judging by the response to the club announcing his arrival on a short-term contract, neither did most Leicester Tigers fans.

But, in the Ashton-way of doing things on and off the pitch, he embraced the challenge ahead of him.

“I saw that as another challenge, to get the fans onside. It was big part of it for me,” he says.

“There was the coaches, the players and then actually getting on the pitch, and then I knew I had to try and win them [Leicester Tigers fans] over as well.

“You know, during the time without any crowd, I was really open about how much I struggled playing in front of nobody. It combines with how I play the game, I need them as much as they love watching the sport.

“So, when that first chance came, against Northampton, I was reminded why I do it and why I love it.”

More than most, he knows what it is like to come down the steps and run out to the left at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

After making the switch to rugby union, Ashton established himself in the fifteen-man code as a Saints player. Then, after joining Saracens, enjoyed a period of intense rivalry between the London club and Leicester.

Having been on that side, all he could do to avoid being distracted by the league’s biggest and loudest supporter base was try and block them out.

Now, on this side, he has taken the opposite route and is embracing the support from the most influential 16th man in England - as it seems are the coaches and his team mates.

“To be here with the crowd that we are so lucky to have at Tigers, I took it for granted before now as a visitor,” he says.

“I came in, I did my thing and never really took much notice of it before being a Tigers player.

“But, honestly, Steve talks about it in meetings; how important they are to us and he shows us ticket sales figures and merchandise sales going up and the influence we have. It is about us and them, together, building something here.

“Experiencing it now, week in and week out, I realise how good it is at Leicester Tigers and how important they are to what we do. It is incredible.”

It reads like a script for the big-screen, he knows that.

Headlines claiming one thing, the truth being another. Career over, within reach of a record he had spent his career striving for, and then a return out of nowhere to claim the top spot - with a hat-trick as well - and offered a new contract after so much uncertainty.

But, while it has the making of a great individual story, he is only interested in seeing his name alongside his team-mates.

“Look, let me say, being back and playing is one thing, but actually playing well and contributing is what I want to be doing,” he offers up without a question.

“In my position alone, there is a great group of back-three players here, who all get on and push one another, but equally we are all fighting to be able to play. I don’t want to just be here, I want to play.

“I would like to think I can help them though and want to do what I can to see the younger guys take the next step as well.

“I hope that is something Steve saw in the idea of bringing me in as well, what I can pass on and add to this group in the way I train, prepare and play.

“I am desperate for each of the players here to kick on and achieve everything in the game.

“I haven’t really been somewhere like this where there is no ego, we are all trying to make each other better - honestly - nobody is taking away from what we are doing, everybody is adding to it.

“I am just so glad to be a part of it.”

Which, as he set out to do, Ashton has shown the coaches, players and fans they should be too.