Former England winger Chris Ashton says Friday’s clash between France and Ireland is the match he is most looking forward to in this year’s Six Nations, but has stopped short of labelling it a tournament decider.
The 36-year-old former England winger, who retired from rugby last year as the Premiership’s record try scorer, is expecting both teams to be hungry after they both made abrupt quarter-final exits at the 2023 World Cup.
With both teams missing key personnel from their tournaments Ashton feels both teams will have a tough job to get off to a winning start, but he is narrowly giving France the edge with home advantage a crucial factor.
“France vs Ireland is a game I can’t wait to see,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to this fixture on Friday night and I think both teams will be going into this one with plenty to prove.
“Ireland are definitely the best rugby team to not get to a World Cup semi-final. It’s ridiculous when you think about it with the talent they had at the World Cup.
“Losing the likes of Johnny Sexton, it will be a difficult challenge for Ireland, but I think they have more than enough quality at fly half to still be an amazing team. When you see what Leinster are throwing around week-in, week-out in the URC then there are reasons to be confident if you’re an Ireland fan.
“They all know each other inside out and have amazing chemistry. They just need to find a way to replace Johnny’s experience because he has dug Ireland out of so many holes over the years.
“It’s going to be hard playing the French in Marseille. They will be playing this game with a new captain and without Dupont, so they have their own challenges but the new captain Gregory Alldritt is one of the best number 8s in the world right now so they will be lead by a great replacement.
“They love their rugby down on the south coast. I think that could also give them a bit of an edge. I think the French will nick it on Friday night. “
Friday night’s much-anticipated clash precedes a busy Saturday which sees England get their campaign underway in Rome against Italy, before Scotland travel to Wales looking for a first win in Cardiff since 2002.
Ashton feels that Saturday’s two visiting sides have the potential to be dark horses in the championship, with Scotland perhaps the most settled of all six teams straight off the back of a Rugby World Cup, and England looking to break back into the top two of the tournament for the first time since 2020.
“Scotland could go on a run,” Ashton added. “They’ve got some good home fixtures and will fancy themselves against all of the teams.
“When you think about the other contenders, a lot of teams in transition, then this tournament could represent the best opportunity that Scotland has had in a long time to do something special.
“England in my mind should be top two or three in the Six Nations every single year, without doubt. That is something that we haven’t had in recent tournaments, so we should be aiming for that as a minimum.
“Ireland have lost a lot of experienced players. France will be without Dupont and Ntamack who is still injured so there is an opportunity for England, but with so many teams in transition, I don’t think we will know who will be challenging and what England should be looking to achieve until after round two.
“With the resources that England have, the minimum objective for us should always be top two.”
If England are to meet Ashton’s expectations – and match the top two finishes he achieved with England in each of the three championships where he was fully involved – they will undoubtedly need to continue their 100 per cent winning record against Italy on Saturday.
They are likely to be without 24-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith, who had been expected to ascend to the number ten shirt for this year’s tournament in the absence of Racing 92-bound Owen Farrell.
In the absence of Smith, Ashton expects boss Steve Borthwick to turn to the ever-reliable George Ford. He is not ruling out a call for Northampton Saints youngster Finn Smith however, and has labelled his club teammate winger Tommy Freeman as his player to watch in this year’s Six Nations.
“George will be likely to take over the 10 shirt with the experience he has for club and country under Steve and the success George has had England, he is a test match player made for the environment and always guides the team exceptionally well.
“Steve is not afraid to make big calls, if he thinks Finn has done enough in training to prove he is ready to face Italy he could give him his opportunity, Finn has been outstanding this year for the table topping Northampton Saints and has shown maturity beyond his years.
England have a lot of talented youngsters, but I really like the look of Tommy Freeman. He’s gone back to Northampton and taken on board everything that he needed to put himself in a position where he is ready to have an impact for England.
“His performances this season for his club have been excellent – he performs every week. He looks like he is ready to settle into international rugby and I hope he gets the game time at the Six Nations to play in the team, either on the wing or at centre. He could be England’s breakthrough star.”
Chris Ashton was speaking to Gambling Zone ahead of the Six Nations. For his full comments to them click this link.
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