Ashton back in contention as Lancaster braced for 'big' French test
England head coach Stuart Lancaster insists Chris Ashton remains a wing option against France as he puts the finishing touches to selection for Saturday's Six Nations opener.
Ashton's 37 caps identify him as a serious contender for the Paris showdown – even though his form stagnated throughout the autumn – with injuries to Marland Yarde and Christian Wade making him all but a certain inclusion.
Lancaster has indicated that he would be happy to pitch any two of rookie trio Jack Nowell, Jonny May or Anthony Watson into battle at the Stade de France. But he has also noted Ashton's resurgence at Saracens in the wake of an underwhelming autumn series and still views him as his most accomplished support runner.
"After the autumn he went back to Saracens, worked on his game and has played well since," said Lancaster, who names his team on Thursday. "There are still areas of his game that he's working on, but his form since the autumn has been good. He's been playing in a Saracens side that's been winning. In terms of his reaction, it's been the reaction you'd want."
Jostling to accompany or replace Ashton on the wing are uncapped duo Nowell and Watson, while May has made one solitary Test appearance – against Argentina last summer.
Lancaster points to granting seven players their debuts against Scotland at Murrayfield two years ago as evidence of his willingness to give youth a chance.
Complicating matters against France, however, is that Luther Burrell is expected to win his first cap at outside-centre, leaving England's backline with a very raw look heading into one of the Championship's key fixtures.
"I've never shied away from giving people without much experience opportunities. At some point you have to do it," Lancaster said. "There is a balance to strike, but I've always been reasonably confident to pick inexperienced players if I feel they're ready.
"At some point you have to make the step up. There will be some people with less experience in the France game."
So much rests on events at the Stade de France, with England's Six Nations potentially unravelling should they taste defeat, giving an already tricky team selection added importance.
"France away is one of the biggest challenges in rugby. It took New Zealand until the 70th odd minute to nail the game in Paris last autumn," Lancaster said. "And at the end of the match, France were on the New Zealand line with two minutes to go. Having France first up is a big test for us."