England head coach Eddie Jones has turned to Chris Ashton, hoping the winger can make an early impact against France at Twickenham on Sunday.
Rugby is an unpredictable beast and Chris Ashton knows that better than most.
A year on from being in French exile and doing punditry duty during the Six Nations, Ashton has been charged with scoring early against France having proven to Eddie Jones he has an “unrelenting desire” to play for England. Then there is his experience of living in the very centre of the beast that is French rugby — he has experienced first-hand the unpredictable nature of the sport in that part of the world.
Ashton was one of two changes made to the starting XV from England’s win in Ireland after he was named ahead of Jack Nowell, who was described by Jones as “absolutely outstanding” in their Six Nations opener.
Though Ashton spent last season with Toulon, England have not looked to him for any inside information on their French opponents. According to captain Owen Farrell, Ashton’s French is minimal while Jones said his experience of the Top 14 was not “greatly” relevant but that his knowledge of the players would be an “advantage”.
No, Ashton has not been selected for his ability to read the French players’ body language according to Jones, but his eye for the tryline has granted him the chance to take the No. 14 shirt as England look to continue their record of scoring within the opening three minutes in each of their last four Tests.
“He’s a finisher,” Jones said of Ashton. “We feel that maybe early in the game, as he did against New Zealand he can find the line for us, could be important. “He’s got a good awareness of opportunities. It’s not something that you coach, it’s something players develop at a young age and then continue to develop. He’s a try poacher.”
Farrell sees the start of the game as a “tone-setter for what’s to come” and Ashton is keen to cross early.
“It’s something that I pride myself on doing,” Ashton said. “It’s always the aim to get a try but it’s how the game goes, if the opportunity comes hopefully I’ll be in the right place.”
Just a year ago, Ashton was unavailable for England selection and only featured in the Six Nations by offering his expertise as a pundit for France’s game against Italy.
Having returned to the Gallagher Premiership and to Sale Sharks in the off-season, he featured for England in the November Internationals and came off the bench for the final six minutes against Ireland last weekend. But you have to go back to 2013 to find his last start in the Six Nations, which came in England’s 30-3 defeat to Wales.
“[That was] One to forget as well,” Ashton said. “I’ve had a good few years watching the Six Nations… I’ve had to sit and watch that so I’m just happy to be part of it again.”
On Sunday he will come face-to-face with some familiar figures with two of his former Toulon teammates Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado in France’s starting XV. He is warning England to expect a “big reaction” from Les Bleus after they lost their championship opener against Wales having been 16-0 up, as that would have “cut them deep”. He has also predicted the talismanic bulldozing centre Bastareaud will offer France a “big positive impact” on Sunday having missed the Wales match.
When Ashton walks out at Twickenham on Sunday, he will not be thinking of the past, nor of his French jaunt, but focused only on what Jones and captain Farrell want from him: to do what comes naturally and get across that try line early on.
“When you’re younger and you’re in the team, you never think it’s going to be your last game,” Ashton said. “You think you’re going to have good, long years at it, but that wasn’t the case for me. I definitely understand what it’s like to not be involved and not have the shirt, so it’s a big privilege for me to be back in.”