Ashton must prove he is a Saint at heart
The England wing will be keen to impress as he makes his return from suspension against Harlequins tonight
It is the time of year when even the biggest Premiership games are seen through the prism of a Six Nations Championship lurking just around the corner, so the hot news ahead of tonight's set-to between third-placed Northampton and table-topping Harlequins surrounds an England wing fresh back from suspension.
Chris Ashton is not exactly the most popular player in the East Midlands right now – his club are almost as annoyed with him as neighbouring Leicester, which is saying something – but if he shows the Londoners a clear pair of heels this evening, the locals will learn to love him all over again.
Ashton wants out of Northampton. That much has been made abundantly clear, both by the player's representatives to the club and by the club's director of rugby to the sporting public at large. The comments of Jim Mallinder on the subject have been unusually blunt – he does not like losing top-of-the-range talents to anyone, least of all Saracens, with whom the Midlanders have tangled more than once in recent seasons – and there have been moments recently when he seemed determined to look elsewhere for his wide players. But as there are matches to be won and trophies to be chased before Ashton goes anywhere, it is not a complete surprise that he has been restored at the first opportunity.
Available again after a four-week ban arising from the entertaining mass derby dust-up between Northampton and Leicester before Christmas – he set the handbag-swinging in motion by pulling his opposite number, Alesana Tuilagi, by the hair – Ashton replaces the impressive Russian wing Vasily Artemyev. There is no suggestion that Artemyev is injured: the decision has been made on the basis of squad rotation, according to those in the know. This also explains the appearance of a former Saracens back, Noah Cato, on the left wing in place of the impressive young newcomer Jamie Elliott.
When he comes face to face with his fellow England wing Ugo Monye, one of the men he beat to a World Cup squad place in the autumn, Ashton will have plenty to prove. Some of his contributions since the global gathering in New Zealand have been less than vintage and with talk of his departure at the season's end disrupting the smooth rhythm of life at Franklins Gardens, he cannot afford another duff performance. Especially as Stuart Lancaster and his colleagues in England's interim coaching team are putting the finishing touches to their 32-man elite squad, due to be confirmed on Wednesday.
There is no possibility that Ashton will be omitted, but there have been rumblings about his attitude since the England players returned home from All Black country with their tails between their legs, and with Lancaster determined to restore some professional integrity to the red rose set-up, there will be no room for malarkey of any kind.
Quins, very much the team of the season to date, have been beaten only once in the Premiership, but they will do well to maintain that record this evening. Once again, they are missing their All Black outside-half Nick Evans; what is more, there is still no sign of their brilliant Samoan flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu. Both were injured in the defeat by Saracens at Twickenham a week and a half ago and remain off-limits. However, the Londoners have beefed up the pack that struggled to subdue Exeter last Saturday, restoring the prop James Johnston and No 8 Nick Easter.
Lancaster already has a number of injury issues on his mind: seven of the World Cup squad who have not retired or dropped out of consideration are currently crocked and to make matters worse, he felt driven to remove Danny Care from his list of Six Nations contenders after the Quins scrum-half was picked up by the police on suspicion of drink-driving in the early hours of New Year's Day.
The situation surrounding two of the more prominent stricken players – the Leicester outside-half Toby Flood and the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, both of whom have knee problems – is about as clear as mud. Depending on who is doing the talking, they will either be just about fit come Calcutta Cup day or will miss the first half of the tournament. The caretaker coach hopes to know more by the weekend.
He is too much of a realist not to anticipate further orthopaedic fall-out over the next three weekends, two of which are of the Heineken Cup variety. Leicester are facing the prospect of a ferociously physical game with Ulster in Belfast in seven days' time – a must-win match for both sides – while Northampton, another major contributor at international level, have the small matter of a meeting with Munster on 21 January.
Meanwhile, the new France coach Philippe Saint-André has included two uncapped players – the Clermont Auvergne back Wesley Fofana and the Toulouse lock Yoann Maestri – in his 30-man Six Nations party. Some long-lost talents are back in vogue, including three more Toulouse men in the full-back Clément Poitrenaud, the outside half Lionel Beauxis and the flanker Yannick Nyanga, but there is no place for a number of World Cup players, including Lionel Nallet, whose displays at lock in the autumn made him one of the players of the tournament.
Danny Care (Harlequins): A self-imposed injury, you might say. The scrum-half has been jettisoned from the squad after two drink-related brushes with the law in three weeks.
Louis Deacon (Leicester): The hard-working World Cup lock has done something nasty to his hamstring – some describe it as a rupture – and will struggle to play again before May.
Toby Flood (Leicester): England's first-choice No 10 is suffering from a "bang on the knee". No one quite knows how long he will be out for, but the pessimists are talking about a month plus.
Courtney Lawes (Northampton): If the caretaker coaches want to build a new pack around the Saints lock, they may have to wait. A knee injury could stop him playing again before the Six Nations.
Lee Mears (Bath): A World Cup hooker, not that anyone noticed, Mears has a long-standing biceps problem. England's most obvious problem position is more of a problem without him.
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester): It is unlikely the human bowling ball will be rolling anywhere before next month, which pretty much puts him out of the Calcutta Cup match. The centre has pulled a hamstring.
Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens): Out for the season, having done most of the things expected of him at the World Cup. The scrum-half injured his knee in October and may not feature again this term.
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