By Mitch Phillips
BAGSHOT, England (Reuters) - England winger Chris Ashton can't remember his last Six Nations start and a psychoanalyst might suggest he has subconsciously blocked it out given that it was one of the low points of his career and came all of six years ago.
As he trooped off the field in Cardiff having seen England’s Grand Slam hopes obliterated in 30-3 demolition by Wales in 2013, nobody could have predicted the free-scoring winger would not start another Six Nations game for six years.
Yet that is how things panned out as a combination of injury, suspension and the arrival of Eddie Jones to replace Stuart Lancaster left him in the international wilderness despite helping Saracens to regular domestic and European glory.
He appeared to call time on his England career when he joined French club Toulon in 2017 - ruling him out of selection.
However, after setting more try-scoring records in France Ashton cut short his contract, returned to the Premiership at Sale and got himself back on Jones’s radar.
He won his first cap for four years off the bench against South Africa last November and started against New Zealand, making a spectacular impact with a try after two minutes in England’s agonising one-point defeat by the world champions.
Now, after coming off the bench in last week’s victory over Ireland, he is set to start against France at Twickenham on Sunday.
Saying he could “barely remember last week” Ashton took a punt at “five years?” when asked on Friday when he last started in the championship and smiled when reminded it was six, and of the occasion.
“One to forget then,” he told reporters with his usual laugh. "But it's such a great tournament, I’ve had to sit and watch for a while so I’m just happy to be part of it again.”
Only last year Ashton was working as a TV pundit in France and said he never thought he would back on the right side of the white line.
“When you’re younger and you’re in the team you never think it’s going to be your last game,” he said. “You think you’re going to have 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."
Ashton, 31, has swapped places with Jack Nowell, just as he did for the New Zealand game, on the back of Jones's gut feeling.
"He’s a finisher. We feel that maybe early in the game, as he did against New Zealand he can find the line for us,” Jones said.
“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 that, he’s a try poacher.”
Jones said Ashton would have been involved earlier in his stewardship but for the suspensions – one of which came after his inclusion in an England squad.
“We’ve always had a high opinion of him as a player and now he’s available we can pick him,” the Australian said.
“I think you have to show an unrelenting desire to want to play for your country, which he’s done. He brings us something different that we think is going to be valuable at the start of the game.”
Despite scoring 20 tries in his 40 appearances, Ashton has yet to chalk one up against the French and he is extra keen to end that drought now he is up against players he got to know well while at Toulon.
“They’ve always been emotional people and players – that can work for and against them,” Ashton said of a French team who have won at Twickenham in the Six Nations only twice in the last 30 years and who England will face again in the Rugby World Cup.
“They’ve got a good group of players and coaches in there – I don’t see any big problem for them,” Ashton said. “They are a couple of wins away from where they should be.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)