Chris Ashton returns to England with the Barbarians hoping to make a splash

Chris Ashton returns to Twickenham following a debut season at Toulon in which he scored 24 Top 14 tries. Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Chris Ashton pauses when asked how he might be received by the Twickenham crowd when he runs out as a Barbarian on Sunday. "I might have been forgotten," he says with a smile, "hopefully!"

It might sound like a strange response from a player who scored 19 tries in 39 Tests for England, but Ashton has long accepted that he is "marmite" among rugby fans -- you either love him or hate him. For every proud Red Rose supporter who cheered his every touch down, there were those, including his one-time national team boss Martin Johnson, who disapproved of his "Ash Splash" celebration.

According to Ashton, Johnson now approves of the Splash and there will be plenty heading to the game on Sunday hoping to see the Toulon wing take flight at Twickenham once again. None more so than the player who has enjoyed a brilliant debut season in the Top 14, scoring a league record 24 tries in the process.

Ashton has not played for England since June 2014, when he scored one try in two appearances on the tour of New Zealand. Having remained on the sidelines for the rest of Stuart Lancaster's ill-fated reign, he was called up for Eddie Jones' first Six Nations squad only to lose his place due to a 10-week ban that was widely accepted as being harsh.

The former Saracens wing admitted his confidence was knocked by his continued omission as he questioned why he was no longer wanted. "I had to go elsewhere to prove I can still do it to myself and others," he says.

He has not spoken to Jones since he swapped north London for the south of France last summer, but does he have something to prove on his return to the UK capital? "Always," he says. "I think there's a point to prove every week, no matter who I'm playing, but there's got to be a little bit more this time."

Despite being in the cold for four years and having celebrated his 31st birthday in March, Ashton believes he is still good enough to play international rugby, proudly revealing that he clocked his quickest ever speed -- 36.6 kph -- as recently as last weekend. He has been buoyed too by the return of Danny Cipriani to the England squad following almost three years in the cold.

The pair could line up on opposing teams on Sunday -- potentially both at fullback -- and each have something to prove to Jones. "It was good to see," Ashton says of Cipriani's recall.

"He definitely deserves his call-up and to be fair to him, he has stuck at it longer than me. He went on that Saxons tour [in 2016] and he's done the hard work with Eddie. It's good to see that he's been rewarded with a chance. I know he's down as a fullback but hopefully he'll get a shot at 10. Just having him in the team somewhere can only be a positive."

Ashton has no regrets about making himself unavailable for that Saxons tour of South Africa, his wife was due to give birth at the time, or his decision to move to France 12 months later.

"Hindsight is a beautiful thing," he says. "I just think where I was mentally and sometimes it is better to take yourself out of the situation than regret something. But it is proof that it can be done by Danny getting back in.

But there is one thing about his England career that does annoy him, the amount of caps he is stuck on. "That number 39 annoys me -- it is a terrible number," he explains.

"Just to look at it is a terrible number. The team that played in that Australia game to see them now on 50, 60, 70 caps. I would have liked to have thought I was capable of getting up to that so it is with regret that I have not been able to add to that."

"I am enjoying it in France but I still feel good and would love to play for England one day" Chris Ashton

Ashton scored twice -- including a remarkable length of the field effort -- at Twickenham in November 2010 as England beat Australia under Johnson with a team that included Ben Youngs, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Danny Care. It remains the prolific wing's fondest memory of playing at English rugby's HQ, even if it also brings into the focus the international career that he could have had.

"We were all really young, there are quite a few lads that are old now in that team but we were all together then at quite a young age," he says. "It was just a good day, where everything goes your way, and they don't happen very often. It is a good memory for me -- it'll stay with me."

That quintet of one-time Test teammates have been some of Jones' most trusted lieutenants over the past two-and-a-half years and will be planning for the Rugby World Cup in Japan. It would take an unforeseen chain of events for Ashton, who has two years left on his contract at Toulon, to join them.

So, would Ashton consider return to England permanently? "I went out to France with an open mind and I still have an open mind," he adds.

"I am enjoying it there but I still feel good and would love to play for England one day. It is not something I have shut off in my mind and who knows what will happen."