Chris Ashton adds another chapter to a turbulent love affair with international rugby

Chris Ashton put on a quality display in the Quilter Cup match between England and Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium. Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

A little under two years ago Chris Ashton thought the door was closed on his England aspirations.

But now, as he prepares for a return to the Gallagher Premiership, he is in the international frame with a glint in his eye enough to persuade Eddie Jones to bring him back in from the cold.

Ashton's close season move from Toulon to Sale Sharks propelled him back into the England reckoning, and his hat-trick for the Barbarians against Jones' side last May would have done his international hopes no harm.

"Chris is an exceptional player, I think we have seen with his form at Saracens, then at Toulon he has played exceedingly well," Jones said of Ashton on Thursday.

"He's come back to England because he wants to play for England so he has got the right desire, the right attitude so it will be good to work with him."

Ashton's inclusion in the 44-man pre-season England training camp adds another chapter to a turbulent love affair with international rugby where at one stage it looked like he would be cast as another player who had fallen short of the cap tally his talent deserved.

For so long Ashton was the dominant winger in English rugby, scoring with wonderful abundance for Saracens, capping off efforts with his token 'Ash-splash' celebration. But club form did not transfer onto the international stage. He fell down the pecking order under former coach Stuart Lancaster, and his last Test appearance for England still dates back to 2014. A new beginning was offered under Jones, slates wiped clean, but then came a tale of two untimely suspensions.

He was named in Jones' first squad, only to then miss the Six Nations after being banned for making contact with the eyes of Luke Marshall -- it was careless at worse, no maliciousness whatsoever, but he still copped a 10-week ban. Then he was left out of the England squad for their end-of-season tour of Australia in 2016, and offered a spot on the Saxons' jaunt to South Africa. He politely turned the offer down, deciding to spend that summer with his pregnant wife.

"It was getting close to the birth and I didn't really want to go on tour to try to prove myself. I didn't really feel I needed to," Ashton said back in December.

Then came the second suspension, for biting Alex Waller. A 13-week ban followed, again harsh on the face of it. That was the final straw. Toulon came knocking, and with that, came the full stop to his England career. "The international door, in his own eyes, seems to be shut," his Saracens boss Mark McCall said soon after Ashton announced his move to Toulon.

Ashton later spoke of his own frustration at being forever under the microscope for whatever he does, good or bad on the rugby field. "I'm glad I can forget about it," Ashton said of his international aspirations when at Toulon -- England parked out of sight and out of mind -- but still the lingering hope remained.

The spell at Toulon gave him a chance to re-appraise his England hopes, playing from fullback and scoring at will. Distance making the heart grow fonder and all that, and when Danny Cipriani was offered the England olive branch by Jones, it planted that seed of hope within Ashton's mind relating to his own personal international goals.

Ashton's desire to play Test rugby was reignited -- "that number 39 is a terrible number" Ashton said of his cap tally -- and though he said he felt he had nothing to prove to Jones after scoring a hat-trick at Twickenham in May that feeling of watching England develop under Jones while exiled in France was gnawing away at him. Married with this was his family failing to settle in France.

The move to Sale was confirmed in July, and though Ashton did not immediately point to international aspirations instead highlighting how he felt he was "going home", his new Sharks coach Steve Diamond was quick to mention how his new "world-class signing" wanted to "fulfil his potential with England".

And now, as part of the 44-man camp, Jones spoke about Ashton as a player available once again, rather than a talent lost. "Before the Barbarians game we had a quick chat and he had a bit of a glint in his eye, which indicated something and that something was that he wanted to come back to England," Jones said.

"He wants to play for England and he sees this as his last opportunity so we're very pleased that he's made that decision and we're looking forward to what he can bring to the table."

"I'm Marmite, aren't I?" was Ashton's self-appraisal, but the truth is, Jones likes those kind of players. The ones who can excite and infuriate in the space of one match, but on balance might just have the x-factor Jones so craves as the 2019 Rugby World Cup ticks ever closer.