Former England wing Chris Ashton has praised Owen Farrell’s upcoming move to Racing 92. Farrell will depart Saracens at the end of the season, and join the Parisian giants in the Top 14 for the 2024/25 campaign.
Farrell’s decision to leave the Premiership, came after the fly half confirmed his intentions to stand down from the England team and relinquish his position as captain for personal reasons. Farrell’s England exit was in priority of his mental health, following a turbulent time at the head the side.
Farrell’s former Saracens teammate Chris Ashton, believes that the move to France is a solid decision. Ashton left the North London club in 2017, and enjoyed a year long run with Toulon before returning to the Premiership and joining up with Sale Sharks. Speaking on Farrell’s move with Gambling Zone, Ashton said;
“I think it’s a really good move for Owen. He is joining a massive club in Racing, and I don’t think it will be as much of a culture shock as it would have been if he moved to the south of France. There are a lot of English speakers at Racing, so he won’t feel too far away from home.
“He will have to get used to the language. He will have to get used to communication with the French players. It was a lot easier for me when I played in France because of my position, but when you play at fly half you have to communicate with everyone.
“He is in the game constantly, so he will have to immerse himself in that part of it, whereas when I was on the wing, I could get away with learning a few different calls that helped me in my position but at fly half you need a relationship with everyone.
“The fly half role is very different because it is a role that requires constant communication. I’m sure Owen will throw himself into it. It’s a good time for him to make this move. He has played so well for Saracens for so many years and has given it a real go with England at two World Cups.
“If he goes there and wins the Champions Cup with Racing, then I think he could be thought of in the same vein as Johnny Wilkinson. Johnny went to Toulon and won three Champions Cups. If Johnny hadn’t done that, he would have retired from the game without any sort of club legacy. He was always amazing for England and, obviously won the World Cup, but it was only when he was at Toulon that his club form was exceptional and he started to win club titles.”
There was plenty of ongoing speculation before Farrell’s move was confirmed for next season, with his Saracens departure not coming as a great shock when it was finalised. However, the announcement that Louis Rees-Zammit had quit rugby, just an hour before he was set to be named in Warren Gatland’s Wales squad for the 2024 Six Nations, was a surprise that very few saw coming.
Rees-Zammit has left Gloucester Rugby, Wales and an expected spot on the 2025 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia, in favour of pursuing a career in American football. Rees-Zammit has joined the NFL International Player Programme with a favouring towards the wide-reciever and running-back positions, and is following in the footsteps of Farrell’s soon to be Racing 92 teammate Christian Wade.
Wade left Wasps in 2018 and achieved a spot on the Buffalo Bills squad roster for three seasons. However, injuries hindered the former British & Irish Lion’s progression, and he returned to rugby with his 2022 move to Racing. Chris Ashton was stunned when he heard the news of Rees-Zammit’s career change, and having swapped rugby codes from league to union in his early career, the former Wigan Warrior knows the difficulties of adapting to a new sport.
“I was shocked when I heard the announcement that Rees-Zammit was going to the NFL . I completely understand his reasons for wanting to give it a try, especially at his age, because he is still so young. He can get out there and have a real go at it and, if it doesn’t happen for him then he knows that he will be able to come back to the game because there will be a queue of clubs wanting to sign him.
“If he waited a few years to make the move, it is less likely that it would happen for him. As you get a little older you become more risk adverse, you become more settled in home life, so I think he is having a crack at it at the right time.
“It will be a massive challenge for him. I did something slightly similar when I went from Rugby League to Rugby Union. It took me years to get going in the sport and find my way in the game. Only because I had never played Rugby Union as a kid. I only played Rugby League, so I had no understanding of the game whatsoever.
“Both games are played with the same ball but that is where the similarities end. They are totally different games. It took me a long time in Rugby Union to not have to consciously think about the game; to play instinctively. It took me two years to get an understanding of it and only then could I put my personality and ability into the game.
“Louis is going into the NFL, and he won’t know what rugby skills are transferable and what aren’t. We know that he can run fast, and he’s good at rugby, but running fast in the NFL isn’t a stand-out quality because they have a lot of fast players. He is stepping into the unknown. It will be a really big challenge for him. I hope he succeeds and is able to follow his dream, but it is going to be tough one.”
Despite Rees-Zammit playing no part in Gatland’s Six Nations squad, the selected Wales team looks like an exciting group of fiery young talents. In total, 12 selected players await their Six Nations debut, and five of which are uncapped at international level. Wales have entered their new era, due to the extensive international retirements that took place ahead of and after their Rugby World Cup campaign.
Ashton discussed the difficult spot the Gatland finds himself in, and discussed how Wales are almost ‘starting again’, as they build up their new squad with 21-year-old Dafydd Jenkins as captain.
“I don’t think that Warren Gatland has ever been in a situation like the one he finds himself in with Wales at the moment. Before he has had injuries to deal with and had to deal with one or two older players retiring, but the turnover in his squad for this tournament would have been something he hasn’t dealt with before.
“It’s almost like Wales are starting again. I think the appointment of Dafydd Jenkins as captain is a great choice from Gatland. He is a really level-headed kid who plays seems to have a very bright future ahead of him. He is someone that you can build a team around, so I get that appointment.
“Gatland is probably thinking that there will be no fear in his squad. He has a group he can work with and mould. There are no judgements. He has a group of young, hungry Welsh lads who haven’t been given a shot before, and that is probably when Wales are at their most dangerous as a rugby team.
“There aren’t many coaches in the world that have the experience that Gatland has. It won’t take much to rev up the Welsh fans, especially if no one is giving them a chance at the tournament. We’ll see some players emerge from this group of players; guys we haven’t heard too much of before. That will happen with this Welsh team. Gatland will have some secret weapons in his arsenal.
“The unknown factor for Wales could be advantageous. This is such a young group and that can work for you and against you sometimes. We will have to wait and see.”
Ashton then picked out an exciting Cardiff talent amongst the Wales ranks, who he believes could be the breakout star for Gatland’s team.
“I really like the Welsh wing/centre Mason Grady. I think he could have an outstanding tournament and could be the one player that breaks out. He’s absolutely massive and has been playing really well at Cardiff this season. A lot of English clubs are trying to sign him up. He has a handful of Welsh caps but this year he could have the potential and the ability to be a breakthrough star for Wales.”
Ashton also detailed how Netflix’s recently released Six Nations documentary ‘Full Contact’, is “really good for rugby” and has “done what it was supposed to do”, with excitement building ahead of this weekend’s opening round.
He said of the series: “People that aren’t necessarily rugby fans have a greater understanding of the game and the show gives them an opportunity to have a peek into the world of elite rugby and the characters that exist within the game. I’ve really enjoyed watching it.
“The show shines a light on players’ personalities, which is something that we don’t get to see very much in rugby while also highlighting the commitment and dedication it takes to get to the top of the game. It’s unusual to pick-out one individual from a rugby team and highlight them. That goes against everything you’re ever taught as a rugby player because it’s such a team game, so it’s nice to give some individuals the platform and the opportunity to get to know them in more detail.
“The series has done that really well. Most of the thoughts I’ve heard from people is that “so and so is a really nice guy, or I didn’t know that he was like that.” It’s good for players to show who they are away from the field, because I spent my entire career trying to change people’s opinions. Just because you play the game in a certain way, doesn’t mean that you’re that character off the pitch.”
He also weighed into the ongoing debate over the future broadcasting rights of the Six Nations and claimed that ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’, “was like the FA Cup”, in regards to the popularity.
“I want rugby to have the largest possible audience. The more eyes that are on the game, the better. The Six Nations is one of those showpiece tournaments that attracts viewers that might not be hardcore rugby fans but want to get involved with the sport because they have that friendly rivalry with a neighbour or family members.
“It creates a nice rivalry, and everyone can access it. It’s like the FA Cup, you always know that you will be able to watch it, so it would be sad if it wasn’t available to everyone.
“I don’t want to see that happen, but we live in an ever-changing world. For Six Nations rugby to reach the largest possible audience, I’d like to see it stay on free to air TV because of the history of the tournament. you know will be able to watch it (on terrestrial television)” and “it would be sad if it wasn’t available to everyone”.