"Big Difference" - Chris Ashton Won't Put Ireland on Same Level as World Cup Winning All Blacks or Springboks - Ruck

“Big Difference” – Chris Ashton Won’t Put Ireland on Same Level as World Cup Winning All Blacks or Springboks

It is not a shocking statement to consider Ireland to be the favourites for the 2024 Six Nations. Heading into the competition, Andy Farrell’s men were comfortable front runners, and only added to their claim with a 38-17 dismantling of France in the opening round.

Ireland are currently sat at second in the World Rugby Rankings, with back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners South Africa taking the top spot. Ireland are in phenomenal form, and are looking to make history as the first side to win back-to-back Grand Slams in the modern Six Nations Championships. Despite their impressive form, former England wing Chris Ashton does not consider this Ireland side to be on the same level of the New Zealand side, who won the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups, or the current reigning World Champion Springboks.

Ashton spoke with Gambling Zone, about how Ireland are a step away from such illustrious company.

“I’d love to put this Ireland team in the same category of some of those all-conquering All Blacks teams, but there is a big difference between winning a Grand Slam and winning a World Cup. Ireland know that better than anybody having not been able to progress to a World Cup semi-final in their history.

“Within Europe, Ireland have definitely been the best team, but they haven’t been able to demonstrate that at a World Cup, which is their only Achilles heel if we are comparing them with the likes of South Africa and the All Black.”

Ashton then gave his verdict on if Ireland can be the history makers with consecutive Grand Slams. The former Saracens and Leicester man expects Ireland to take it one game at a time, and can see the excitement building after an expected victory over Warren Gatland’s Wales side.

“Unfortunately, in rugby, we always want to play everything down and not get too carried away with performances and how things are going.

“I think for Farrell’s players, when they get past Wales, which I have no doubt they will, I do think there will be some sort of dramatic unexpected win in the tournament somewhere in this Six Nations because there always is.

Ireland team to play New Zealand

“Will Wales throw that up? I don’t think so, so that sets up something for England vs Ireland at Twickenham. That will be a great occasion. I think if you’re Andy Farrell you need to play down all of the noise and take it one game at a time. There is an opportunity to make history with back-to-back Grand Slams.”

Pivoting his attention to Wales, Ashton does not see it as a surprise that the Dragons have lost their two opening Six Nations matches. Despite their impressive second half retaliation against Scotland, and their competitive battle at Twickenham, Gatland’s men are yet to get off the mark in the competition. Speaking on the positives that Wales can take into round three against Ireland, Ashton said.

Alex Mann of Wales Rugby on the break during the Six Nations Rugby match between Wales and Scotland at Principality Stadium on February 3, 2024 in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“Unfortunately for Wales, I don’t think that it is that much of a surprise that they have lost their two games at the Six Nations.

“I think Wales have to understand and identify the players that are going to be in the team for the next six or seven years and build their team around them. They have some lads in the squad that have been thrown in at the deep end who have hardly played any first team rugby, but the situation in Welsh rugby at the minute has given these guys an opportunity.

“They need the five or six players that they can build their team around to establish themselves. They have some wonderful young talented players coming through.

“Some of the young Welsh players probably would not have been given the chance under different circumstances, so they have to take the experience and enjoy the opportunity they have. They would have had get more club experience and slowly brought through the system, but they haven’t been given that time.

“These inexperienced players are doing well in difficult circumstances, but there is a big difference between doing well and pushing teams close to winning test matches and Gatland knows that better than anyone.”

Ashton identified two Welsh players, an Irish flyer and an English star as the four top performers of the 2024 Six Nations so far. The former wing believes that back-row bruisers Tommy Reffell and Ben Earl, along with Ireland and Wales back-three players Cameron Winnett and James Lowe, have wasted no time in making their mark in this year’s Championships.

Try celebration b Leicester Tigers player Chris Ashton after he scores his 100th try during the Gallagher Premiership rugby game between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on April 16th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“I think Tommy Reffell deserves to be mentioned after some of the performances that he has put in for Wales – he has always been a breakdown and turnovers specialist, but he was hitting lines and getting himself all over the place at Twickenham at the weekend.

“Winnett has impressed me for Wales also. When you consider that he’s only played fifteen professional games of club rugby, he’s making breaks every week and hitting lines that you would expect from a really experience player.

Ben Earl of England celebrates during the Six Nations Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 10 February 2024 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Ben Earl was great again for England so far in these Six Nations with a man of the match display against Wales. James Lowe has been outstanding for Ireland. His all-round game as a winger works perfectly for the Irish set-up. His kicking ability, the way that he’s reading defensive situations and finishing tries from ten metres out taking 4 players with him.

“You don’t usually see a team using a players full set of attributes but Ireland are definitely doing that with Lowe. Whether that is clearance kicking, carrying, linking or catching high balls, Ireland get the best out of the back three players. The system really works for them.

James Lowe of Ireland during the Autumn Nations Cup match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on November 21 2020. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

The former England international then turned his focus to the new season format, as the Premiership has been put on pause throughout the Six Nations. Last weekend’s fallow week saw the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-finals take place, and the URC return for a round of action. There is plenty of adapting in place for this new-look season structure, as Ashton explained.

“This season is a new experience for the players with the week off and no premiership in between. It’s a different way of doing things. We’ve had twenty or twenty-one games on the bounce in the Premiership and the European Cups, so some lads won’t have played a game for seven or eight weeks if they are in camp and not being selected to play.

Danny Care of England arriving before the six Nations Championship match, between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, London , UK, on the 17th March 2017. (Photo:Dean Lancaster/PPAUK)

“The lads that in camp are getting a very high level of training done under great intensity, but some lads will need match minutes. Danny Care for example, he’s played two tests and probably done about half an hour.

“Danny doesn’t need to play for his club to show Steve Borthwick what he can do, but if you were a young player in this England squad who hasn’t played as much, then going back to your club and playing competitive games gives them the opportunity to show Steve what they can do. We don’t have that benefit now.

Steve Borthwick, Head Coach of England during the England Captains Run at Twickenham Stadium, London on 9 February 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

“There is a big, long break for players to get their heads round, which is a different way of fitting the tournament into the schedule. We will only see if the new schedule has been of a benefit in England once the six nations is over.”

Lastly, Ashton expressed his support for the Six Nations match officials after a series of tough calls have decided the outcomes of matches. Most notably, France scraped passed Scotland when the referee and TMO did not award Sam Skinner’s last-ditch try, as the camera angles proved inconclusive to see a clear grounding for the short range drive to the line.

“Yeah, I have sympathy for the refs, especially for the decision not to award Scotland a try against France.” Ashton added.

“What happened with Wayne Barnes and TMO Tom Foley at the World Cup, the death threats and everything else, the abuse they received, there is always going to be doubts about tight calls at the end of the games because of that. The guys would have known they would be under a massive amount of pressure to get the call right and it’s only human nature for all officials to be in a position where they don’t want to have to make those big calls in the dying minutes.”