21 Apr 2020

Matty Ashton: Tough times bring opportunity

There is no one route to the top of professional rugby league. 

Some do it the simple way. 

They are earmarked by a club from a young age, break into the first team at 18 and spend the rest of their career at that same club.

Others have no such luxury. 

As trite slogans go, ‘Tough Times Bring Opportunity’ ranks alongside the cheesy mantras on motivational posters. But in the case of one of the rising stars of Super League, there might be something in it.

Warrington Wolves’ Matty Ashton has been speaking to superleague.co.uk

Whether it’s yoga, home workouts or TikTok, there is plenty of ‘stay positive’ content available during this unwelcome period of lockdown.

For Warrington Wolves’ Matty Ashton, frustrating as it is, it also presents an opportunity.

The 21-year-old’s focus is on rehab after picking up a long-term injury so soon after starting out in his long-awaited Super League career.

Ashton’s outlook for the 2020 campaign, one that started with such undeniable promise, now looks more favourable than it might have done.

That is the current state of play for the talented, naturally gifted full-back, who has certainly caught the eye since joining Wolves at the start of the season.

His fluent performances have won admirers from outside and inside the club, with head coach Steve Price likening him to a Ferrari and admitting to being surprised by the youngster’s raw pace.

That level of recognition, from one of the best coaching minds in the game, seemed a long way off for Ashton a few years ago.

More than most, he knows how tough it is to get to the elite end of the sport.

For some, the journey is fairly predictable: earmarked by a club, developed in the academy, blooded in the first team, and the rest is history.

For others, the road is more difficult, which is where we pick up the journey of Ashton, whose route to the top has not been easy.

Told he was too small by Salford Red Devils when he was 15, Ashton was the outsider looking in as his teammates and friends from Rochdale Mayfield RLFC – who produced the likes of Matty Lees and Jack Ashworth - picked up professional contracts before him.

He said: “I would have always played rugby league for fun - but I didn’t know whether I would make it professional.

“A lot of my mates got offered scholarships - but I didn’t, so I thought that it might not happen for me.

“I was at Salford for a bit, where I played one game, and they just told me I was too small.”

A trip to Australia helped to ease the burden of expectation for Ashton, who admits he did a lot of growing up Down Under. The trip was as much about developing as a person as it was about developing his rugby.

That maturity showed last season at Swinton Lions, which is when his latent talent started to get the recognition it deserved.

Thirty tries in 25 matches is the sort of output that bigger clubs, forever on the lookout for promising young talent, find hard to ignore.

Last year’s Betfred Championship Young Player of the Year award further validated the season Ashton had put together, which started with a pay-as-you-play deal.  

Ashton said: “I got back from Australia and was not doing much - but Swinton got in touch and offered me a trial.

“I went down to the AJ Bell Stadium and eventually they offered me a deal, which I happily took.

“It was a few weeks until I got a chance, and even then, I questioned if I had made the right decision.

“But I got a chance after a couple of months, scored two tries against Halifax, and it took off from there.”

Ashton’s exploits were rewarded with high praise and a coveted move to Wolves.

An injury to Gareth Widdop then opened up a space in the backline, and it was an opportunity Ashton made sure he took.

Headline-grabbing performances at the start of this season, most notably in Wire’s matches against Wigan Warriors and St Helens, made Ashton an early Man of Steel contender.

“I was not expecting to get an opportunity so early in the season,” he explained.

“I was training my socks off in pre-season, knowing that I was good enough, but realistically I didn’t think my chance was going to come until the middle of the season, through injuries or players getting rested.

“Gareth [Widdop] then got injured and I thought I might have an opportunity, but I knew how good our outside backs were, so still thought it might not come.

“But I got that chance against Wigan and it was such a great moment for me - I am not sure I have ever had a better feeling in my life.

“I have just been encouraged to play my natural game, which is what I like to do.

“I want to use my speed and attack the line when the situation allows.”

However, as it often has for Ashton, there was a bump in the road.

A torn hamstring against Toronto ruled him out for up to five months.

“I broke the line and as I was looking to get away, I got dragged back and kicked it, I felt it twinge and that was it,” Ashton recalls.

“Straight after the game it seemed alright, the physios thought I might only be out for a couple of weeks - but then the scan showed it was a lot worse than feared.

“I was really upset at the start and I took it badly because I have never had such a bad injury before.

“It was just as I felt as if things were starting go well for me, so to get such a long-term injury was a massive blow.

“But once I had my operation I felt a lot better and, after speaking to the physios, I knew that I just had to keep positive.”

The injury, in normal circumstances, would have meant Ashton missed the majority of the Super League season.

But these are not normal circumstances, and the outbreak of coronavirus means Ashton may well be back in time for when Super League returns – whenever that might be.

He said: “It’s obviously a hard time for everyone because the situation is so unusual – but from a purely personal perspective, I guess I can look at it as an opportunity in the sense that I might not miss as many matches as I might have done.”

“There are still a lot of challenges to come over the next few weeks and months.

“As players it is all about staying on top of things, making sure we are keeping to our diets and our fitness regimes.

“It is a mental challenge, not being around your mates, but you need to keep disciplined in the meantime, not go off the rails and listen to the advice we have been given.

“It could be easy to slip into bad habits, like eating that chocolate bar that you probably shouldn’t, but we all need to remember we are playing for a professional outfit.

“At Warrington, we are given things to do by the coaches and allowed to go in and pick up a bike to use at home, so that really helps.”