Ashton yearns to make a splash
Chris Ashton is the fastest man in the England team. He is also quick to admit his weaknesses.
Has this been the toughest six months of his entire career?
"Definitely. Coming back from the World Cup... sometimes it just goes like that," he said.
"Your life is never going to keep going up and up - there will always be a bit where it plateaus out. It's dealing with that side of it that's harder than anything else. When we got back from New Zealand it just kept snowballing."
Chris Ashton scores a try in trademark fashion. Photo: Getty
Snowball it did. Ashton was that tournament's joint leading try-scorer, but as one of the players to crop up most frequently in photographs of that infamous night in Queenstown's Altitude bar, he returned from the southern hemisphere to anything but a hero's reception.
A subsequent autobiography was criticised by some as premature. When he returned to club action with Northampton, he was banned for pulling Leicester wing Alesana Tuilagi into touch by his hair, and then had a bust-up with coach Jim Mallinder after being dropped for the big European tie against Munster.
Having begun his international career with nine tries in nine matches, he went on to bag 15 in his first 17 Tests. But Ashton has now gone five matches without crossing the line.
Other wingers have suffered worse droughts - his former England team-mate Mark Cueto famously went 18 matches without one for the national side - but few have gone from feast to famine quite so dramatically.
So what has happened to the form that made him the most feared finisher in world rugby?
"When you've had success you feel like everything's going to come off," he says almost wistfully, "and almost inevitably it does. When it isn't happening, and you're trying to catch a break, it seems a lot harder to get that next try than the last one."
We are talking in the spring sunshine at England's training base at Pennyhill Park, two days before the final match of the 2012 Six Nations against Ireland. A year ago Ashton scored six tries in his first two matches. This time he is in real danger of going scoreless throughout the entire tournament.
"A lot of it comes down to chemistry, to continuity, just getting used to each other," he says, when I ask him where the disparity has sprung from.
"There's a little bit of us as a team getting to know each other, how we play. The first two games were pretty miserable conditions, lots of hard work, more of a slog.
"The Wales match - it's part of the tournament, but it doesn't help when you're stop-starting when you've got a new team. A week on, then two weeks without a game - you need to keep playing.
"I've been in the same place as always, making the same runs, and I've just been a bit unlucky with some of it, with that last pass hasn't been quite there. But that's going to happen - as long as I'm doing everything else right..."
Last season Ashton was forever popping up on the shoulder of fly-half Toby Flood, taking an inside pass to accelerate free. Has the absence of Flood this year, first through injury and then form, denied him his main ammunition?
"Toby has always been good at that - he does that a lot at Leicester," he tells me. "I also think defences are now covering that move a lot more. When you're new it's one thing, but then the opposition start to watch and start to expect.
"That will always happen. You've just got to change your game and carry on getting better and improving. I would like to think I'm doing that."
He scratches at his arm and looks uncomfortable. "As a team we haven't made too many line-breaks, either."
Six, I remind him, with just three in the first three matches.
"Yeah. That's not many at all. Scotland had seven just in the game against us. That's a factor in it. I'm always waiting sometimes for someone to make that break and some of the games have been pretty hard to get involved in."
Last month Ashton offered to move from his favoured right wing to the left to allow David Strettle his own favourite. Has that switch also inadvertently made his task harder?
"Yeah. I've just seen the game for so long from that side of the pitch that it makes more sense to you, just because you've been standing there for so long.
"You get used to everything being on that side of you, so it felt a bit different. The games have been pretty difficult ones to just throw yourself into the left wing.
"I thought I'd give it a go, try the left. After the Wales game I thought I'd like a go back on the right. I just felt much more comfortable, I got myself in the game more. I'm going back to the right again on Saturday."
Another theory has it that today's 24-year-old Ashton is carrying more timber than the fleet-footed, rosy-cheeked speedster who made his debut in Paris two years ago. Has he bulked up in the gym, or lost a little shape?
"Maybe. I don't know. It's pretty hard to work out, because in my head, I don't feel any different to when I was 17.
"You're up and down quite a lot of the time, because sometimes you're doing weights and sometimes you're not. Maybe, because I had four weeks' off at Christmas, not playing, you're not running as much and you're doing more weights, so maybe a little bit."
He shrugs and grins. "But I've always wanted to be a little bit heavier. Not fatter, mind, but heavier."
Some have called for Ashton to be dropped from Stuart Lancaster's starting XV. Cueto has been at the forefront of his former team-mate's defence.
"I don't think he is particularly out of form," Cueto told the BBC. "He is just not getting the opportunities and he is getting frustrated. He has not done anything wrong, and to pick someone out like that is just ridiculous."
There were signs against France of Ashton beginning to enjoy himself again, even if his most important impact was the crunching hit he made on Dmitri Szarzewski that led indirectly to England's first try.
"That was the first tackle I've made, ever," he says with a smile. "I knew I was on my own, so I knew I had to fly in. Luckily he wasn't looking. Although I'd rather Manu [Tuilagi] had tackled him and I'd been on the end of it, scoring the try.
"I'm pretty annoyed when I don't have an impact on the game. You expect yourself to be involved in a game at some point, and when that doesn't happen... Even when the team wins and you're pleased, you're not happy deep down with how you've played."
He was at his lowest, he says, when he couldn't even get a game for Northampton. "It was pretty hard to take. I just had to sit there and watch, through the biggest drought that I've had. That was pretty hard to deal with.
"Doing the simple things and not bothering about all the other stuff, just making sure you're in the team every week - you gain confidence that way. That's what you get from playing. So when you're not playing it's pretty hard. What can you do?
"I think now it's slowly getting better. It's just unfortunate that it has to end this weekend."
If he were he score against Ireland on Saturday, would Twickenham once again witness his "Ash Splash" celebration, or have those carefree days gone? He grins again. "I dunno mate. It might just have to be a dot it down, thank flip for that. Run back, give me another one. We'll have to see..."