MARTIN JOHNSON is banking on two rugby league converts to fire England into an exciting new era.
Former New Zealand international Shontayne Hape and Northampton winger Chris Ashton are the two new faces in a 32-man elite performance squad for the Six Nations Championship. But there is no place for fly-half Danny Cipriani and versatile back Shane Geraghty, who must both settle for the Saxons squad.
Johnson’s side were criticised for a lack of attacking invention during their autumn internationals, scoring just one try in three matches, and that in a low-key win over Argentina.
Now he has turned to the lively Hape and an exciting Northampton trio to turn fortunes around.
Hape, who won 14 caps for the Kiwis rugby league side, has been monitored by Johnson since switching codes to join Bath from Super League club Bradford Bulls in 2008.
He, after Dylan Hartley and Riki Flutey, is the third New Zealand-born player in the current squad and, if he plays, will become the third former Kiwi rugby league international to turn out for England after Henry Paul and Lesley Vainikolo.
Hape, 28, who qualifies on residency grounds, got the nod to replace the injured Mike Tindall at centre ahead of Geraghty and Ayoola Erinle, who both featured in the autumn.
Ashton, meanwhile, is the country’s leading try-scorer with nine in 10 Premiership matches for Northampton. The 22-year-old has scored 67 tries in 62 games since moving from Wigan in 2007, benefitting from playing alongside Ben Foden and Courtney Lawes, who has impressed since switching from lock to blindside flanker. Foden and Lawes are also included in the squad.
Fit-again quintet Delon Armitage, Flutey, Toby Flood, Nick Easter and Lee Mears all return after missing the autumn Tests, while back rows James Haskell and Lewis Moody, and hooker Steve Thompson, retain their places.
ENGLAND | SIX NATIONS SQUAD
Forwards: Steffon Armitage (London Irish), Steve Borthwick (Saracens, capt), Jordan Crane, Tom Croft, Louis Deacon (all Leicester), Nick Easter (Harlequins), Dylan Hartley (Northampton), James Haskell (Stade Francais), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Lee Mears (Bath), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Tim Payne, Simon Shaw (both Wasps), Andrew Sheridan (Sale), Steve Thompson (Brive), Julian White (Leicester), David Wilson (Bath)
Backs: Delon Armitage (London Irish), Chris Ashton (Northampton), Matt Banahan (Bath), Danny Care (Harlequins), Mark Cueto (Sale), Harry Ellis (Leicester), Toby Flood (Leicester), Ben Foden (Northampton), Riki Flutey (Brive), Shontayne Hape (Bath), Dan Hipkiss (Leicester), Paul Hodgson (London Irish), Ugo Monye (Harlequins), Mathew Tait (Sale), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)