England Fear over Ashton Knee Surgery; FIRST HE WAS A PUNCH BAG, NOW

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Byline: by CHRIS FOY Rugby Correspondent

ENGLAND'S prolific wing Chris Ashton will have exploratory surgery on a knee injury next week, only three months before Martin Johnson's squad travel to New Zealand for the World Cup.

The 24-year-old Northampton star will play his last game of the season on Saturday when the Saints attempt to win the Heineken Cup for a second time by beating Leinster in the final at Cardiff 's Millennium Stadium.

Four days later, the crosscode sensation -- who has touched down nine times in 12 Tests -- will have an operation on his left knee with the aim of being in prime condition for England's World Cup warm-up matches in August.

Concerns about the state of Ashton's knee come at a time when his face is bearing the scars caused by Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi's flailing fists at Welford Road in last Saturday's Aviva Premiership semi-final.

The Anglo-Samoan centre is due to be cited today for the attack which left his opponent heavily bandaged and, remarkably, alongside him in the sinbin after Tuilagi somehow escaped a red card.

The teenage Tiger had performed sufficiently well in the second half of the season to put himself in the frame for a call-up to the senior England squad ahead of the summer training camp, but this reckless assault has jeopardised that prospect.

Video footage shows in graphic detail a barrage of three punches which one Northampton source has described as 'disgusting'.

Tuilagi is likely to be called to a hearing tomorrow or on Thursday, with the threat of a ban ranging from two to eight weeks. However, as a young player with an unblemished disciplinary record, there is every chance of a lenient sentence. Those who have seen the brutal incident will find that staggering.

Ashton was reluctant to discuss the episode yesterday, but told Sportsmail: 'It doesn't really hurt, it just doesn't look good! I've not really had too much stick about it. I've had more lads saying to me, "What was he doing?" To be honest, I was more bothered that we lost.

'Rugby is rugby, isn't it? It happens. I've had it before when people carry it on after the game. …