sport

Ashton set to face France

England head coach Stuart Lancaster insists Chris Ashton remains a wing option against France in 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 will be happy to pitch any two of rookie trio Jack Nowell, Jonny May or Anthony Watson into battle at the Stade de France if he deems them ready for such a critical match.

But Lancaster has noted Ashton's resurgence at Saracens in the wake of an underwhelming series of QBE Internationals 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 morning.

"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.

"The message to Chris has been to retain your point of difference - your tracking and try-scoring - but work on the timing of high ball receipts etc. And he's reacted well.

"In terms of tracking the ball and getting on the end of things, he's still the best."

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.

"Chris' point of difference is still his ability to track the ball, but other wings have things that make them stand out," Lancaster said.

"Jonny May has unbelievable pace and the ability to change direction which means not many people know where he's going.

"Jack Nowell is different again. His involvement in the game is higher than any other wing.

"He gets his hands on the ball a lot and has beaten more defenders than any wing in our squad.

"Like Mike Brown, he has the ability to break the first tackle and beat the defender. And he's great under the ball having played full-back. Anthony is different again."

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. 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 up is a big test for us."