CHRIS Ashton insisted Warren Gatland should have no concerns about taking England players on the British and Irish Lions tour because they have learned from the mistakes of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Gatland is mindful of the media circus that developed around the England squad during that tournament, with players’ off-field behaviour making front-page headlines. The Lions coach is concerned that England players are “not always the most popular with other countries” and could be targeted or set up.
Ashton, who was involved in two high-profile incidents in New Zealand, though, is now more aware of his own responsibilities and confident the whole culture of English rugby has changed. “I understand why people might think that [about English players] from what happened then [at the World Cup] but it’s completely different here now,” Ashton said. “The people who were around then have learned their lessons from that and the people who weren’t there know the consequences if you get involved or caught out in the way we did. We didn’t do it on purpose but sometimes it takes mistakes like that for you to learn and luckily the guys who have come into the squad have seen those mistakes we made.
“We’d take exactly what we’ve been doing here and it wouldn’t change. You’re still representing this team and the country.
“Speaking from experience, I won’t be getting caught out again like I was last time.”
Ashton was involved in England’s infamous drunken night out at Queenstown’s Altitude bar, which was hosting a “Mad Midget Weekender”. The Saracens wing was also one of three players ordered to apologise after a Dunedin hotel worker complained about their behaviour.
Ashton has always maintained his innocence but he admitted on his return from New Zealand that the players were naive to put themselves in vulnerable situations. “It was a given that it wasn’t acceptable to get yourselves caught out like that, to put yourselves in those positions,” Ashton continued. “We’re here to play rugby, to be on the back pages, not the front pages. That’s how it’s been since.”
Stuart Lancaster’s first priority when he took over as England coach was to change the culture in the national team and he has, on the whole, found the national media to be a positive influence. “I would trust the players 100 per cent,” Lancaster said. “When I watch them interact with members of the public I never see something that I think is inappropriate behaviour. With international sport comes interest. And if that interest can be harnessed in the right way it can be a positive.”