England wing Chris Ashton believes the “very unique” Mathieu Bastareaud will make his presence felt at Twickenham this weekend as he revels in his own continuing return to the Test scene.
The former team-mates at French Top 14 club Toulon will be Six Nations opponents on Sunday, with powerhouse centre Bastareaud recalled after France let slip a 16-0 half-time lead in last week’s opening 24-19 defeat by Wales in Paris.
“Bastareaud is a very unique player,” said Ashton.
“He is a very difficult person to tackle and he’s always had that in his game, but in the last few years –- and I saw this in Toulon last season –- he has started to become a leader within the group.
“He was their (France’s) captain last season and at Toulon too, and he really took the role on well and embraced it.
“I think he’ll have a real big positive impact for them this week,” added Ashton, with England and France also in the same World Cup pool in Japan later this year.
Ashton boasts an excellent record of 20 tries in 43 Tests.
But, having made his Red Rose debut in 2010, the former rugby league star’s career as a union international came to a halt in 2014 as he fell out of favour with England coach Stuart Lancaster amid concerns over his defence.
Eddie Jones, who replaced the sacked Lancaster following England’s 2015 World Cup debacle, selected Ashton in his first England squad ahead of the following year’s Six Nations.
But then Saracens wing Ashton did not feature after a 10-week ban for allegedly ‘gouging’ Ulster’s Luke Marshall in a European Champions Cup tie.
It was not Ashton’s first brush with authority in a chequered career and at the end of the season he moved to Toulon — a decision that sent him into international exile given England’s refusal to select overseas-based players.
Ashton, however, returned to England by joining Sale in pre-season.
– ‘Grateful to Eddie’ –
His four-year England absence ended against South Africa in November and the following week he scored a try in the opening minute of an 16-15 defeat by world champions New Zealand at Twickenham.
Having come off the bench during England’s impressive 32-20 win away to reigning Six Nations kings Ireland last week, Ashton is now in line to make his first Six Nations start in six years on Sunday after changing places with fellow wing Jack Nowell.
Ashton’s disciplinary record and his extravagant dives over the line when scoring tries — the ‘Ash Splash’ — did not go down well in the conservative world of English rugby union.
But Ashton, 31, knew that so long as he could convince Australian coach Jones, there was a chance of reviving his Test career.
“That is the way it has fallen,” said Ashton. “I’m just grateful to Eddie for giving me the chance again.”
It’s all a far cry from last year when Ashton, who in the course of that campaign broke the record of 21 tries in a Top 14 season set by Clermont’s Napolioni Nalaga in 2008/09, found himself commentating on a Six Nations match between France and Italy.
“Thinking that was a year ago, yeah, I’d never have thought we’d be sat here with me about to play France,” Ashton said.
By then, Ashton understood all too well the difference between watching and playing in the Six Nations.
“When you’re younger and you’re in the team, you never think it’s going to be your last game,” said Ashton of his stop-start England career.
“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.”