Chris Ashton will enjoy his first Six Nations start since 2013, recalling that a year ago he was resigned to having played his last game in the championship as he worked as a TV analyst.
Ashton has displaced Jack Nowell from the right wing for England’s round-two fixture against France with Eddie Jones explaining the decision by stating “we think he might sneak us an early try”.
It continues a Test rebirth that began last autumn, his return to these shores after a successful season-long spell at Toulon propelling him back onto Jones’ radar.
The 31-year-old reaches another milestone on Sunday when he will further distance himself from the four years spent marooned on 39 caps.
“I went with (former South Africa wing) JP Pietersen to commentate on France against Italy,” the Sale star said.
“At that time I’d never have thought we’d be sat here with me about to play France.
“When you’re younger and you’re in the team, you never think it’s going to be your last game.
“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.
“Of course this is what I came back to England for. I got a taste of it in the autumn so I’m past that point of it being a relatively new environment.”
Ashton’s last Six Nations outing was one of the low points in English rugby history – a crushing 30-3 defeat by Wales in Cardiff that destroyed the team’s Grand Slam hopes at the final hurdle.
“It was a long time ago – and one to forget as well,” the dual code international said.
“I’ve had a good few years watching the Six Nations, it’s such a great tournament, and England have done really well over the last three years, taking out last season.
“I’ve had to sit and watch that so I’m just happy to be part of it again.”
Nowell impressed through his work-rate and carrying in the remarkable 32-20 victory over Ireland a week ago, but it is Ashton’s nose for the line that has proved decisive for the visit of France.
“You have to show an unrelenting desire to want to play for your country, which Chris has done,” said Jones, in reference to Ashton’s decision to sign for Sale in order to revive his Test career.
“He brings us something different that we think is going to be valuable at the start of the game – he’s a try poacher.”
In the only other change to the starting XV, Courtney Lawes replaces knee injury-victim Maro Itoje in the second row with Joe Launchbury offering cover from the bench.
England produced their best performance of the Jones era at the Aviva Stadium, but captain Owen Farrell hopes it is merely a stepping stone to greater achievements.
“We know we can do better. We want to see where we can take things,” Farrell said.
“We don’t want to just be good at stuff. Everyone is good at stuff. We want to see where we can take it. There will be a lot that we want to take to another level.”
Liam Williams has backed Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s selection approach to the Six Nations clash against Italy on Saturday.
Gatland made 12 changes to his starting line-up for last season’s corresponding fixture in Cardiff, and Wales launched an ongoing 10-game unbeaten run by beating the Azzurri 38-14.
This time round, it is 10 switches, with full-back Williams among only five starting survivors from the team that wiped out a 16-point deficit seven days ago to beat France 24-19.
Wales prepared for the Rome encounter with a 31-man training group during five days on the Cote d’Azur earlier this week, with Gatland utilising his squad at the start of a World Cup year.
Asked if 10 changes could be a potential risk to continuity, Williams said: “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s great.
“We have so much competition up for grabs in each position, and it’s great for us looking forward to the World Cup.
“That might be one of the reasons why Warren has changed the team. I think we will be fine at the weekend, and hopefully we will get the win.”
Recent history between Italy and Wales suggests that the visitors could enjoy a points blitz.
In the countries’ last four Six Nations games, Wales have racked up a total of 199 points, with two of their four victories seeing them score more than 60 points.
They are also on a 12-Test winning run at Italy’s expense, but Saracens star Williams has urged caution.
“We know Italy are a tough team to play against at home,” he added.
“In the last couple of times we’ve played in Rome it has been very tight in the first half and then we’ve pulled away in the second half and won the game comfortably.
“We have to play for 80 minutes. Against France we played very poorly in the first half and were much better in the second. This week we need to play for the full 80.
“Our first job is to go out there and play well as a team. If the opportunities to score four tries arise, then we have to take them.
“That is especially important in international rugby. What will be will be, but we will do our best to get one (bonus point).
“Four years ago we came out to Italy and we were winning by a point at half time, and then we went out and scored 47 points in the second half.
“I don’t think that statistic of them not winning for a long time is going to make a big difference to the game.
“Italy played very well in the second half against Scotland and came back right at the end. That shows once again that we have to play for 80 minutes, and not 40.”
And victory in his first game as Wales skipper would extend 60th birthday celebrations for Davies’ father.
Davies’ parents watched Wales beat France in Paris last week before travelling through Switzerland on the Glacier Express, and then heading to Rome.
“My dad was 60 on Tuesday, so they went from Paris through Switzerland on the Glacier Express,” Davies said. “I think they have had a great week, mum and dad.
“They have been a massive part of where I am today, so to have my family and loved ones out here is great.”
Davies leads a side showing 10 changes from the France game as Wales protect a 12-match unbeaten record against Italy.
The Azzurri, meanwhile, have not won a Six Nations Test on home soil since 2013, while their last victory in the tournament came four years ago.
Davies added: “It is important we start well. We can’t give Italy opportunities to get into the game.
“We are looking to start fast and keep going. The week has been great, and the boys are excited.
“They (Italy) always come out pretty fast, so it is about managing that start.
“It is about keeping to what we have worked on over the last few weeks, build momentum and pressure, and hopefully that hard work we put in at the start will pay off.”
A Wales win would make it 11 in a row against all opponents, equalling their all-time record run set between 1907 and 1910.
And Davies will be at the helm this weekend after taking over leadership duties from lock Alun Wyn Jones, who is among Wales’ replacements at Stadio Olimpico.
“It is a huge honour, but any time you put on the red jersey of Wales it is an honour in itself,” Davies said.
“There is added responsibility, but it is something I am looking forward to. I am very fortunate with the players we have – they know the standards needed.
“For me, it is making sure boys are in a good frame of mind, and know what we want to achieve.”
Wales have arrived in Rome straight from a training camp on the Cote d’Azur, and there are opportunities for several players to make an impact at the start of World Cup year.
Wasps flanker Thomas Young and Leicester wing Jonah Holmes both make Six Nations debuts, with Young emulating his father – former Wales prop Dai Young – in representing Wales on the tournament’s stage.
Centre Owen Watkin, scrum-half Aled Davies and flanker Aaron Wainwright are also among those looking to take a chance handed them by Wales head coach Warren Gatland.
“We had 31 players in Nice, so it is giving everyone an opportunity to show what they have,” Davies said.
“Looking at last year, there were a similar amount of changes, and so there is that pressure and responsibility of the group who will play here to make sure we deliver a performance to build momentum after last week.”
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