Dylan Hartley, far and away the best hooker in England, will be available for this summer's three-Test series in South Africa, despite being found guilty yesterday of committing one of rugby's deadlier sins. The Northampton forward was banned for eight weeks for biting the Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris on the finger during the concluding Six Nations match at Twickenham 11 days ago – a light punishment for an offence carrying a maximum suspension of four years.
Hartley expressed his disappointment at the finding of an independent disciplinary tribunal chaired by Roger Morris of Wales, adding that he was awaiting the written judgement, which would reveal "how the panel came to their conclusion". This was a clear indication that the 26-year-old had denied the charge at the hearing in an airport hotel at Heathrow – a salient fact that was not publicly disclosed by the Six Nations administrators.
Those administrators did confirm that Hartley's offence was deemed to be at the lower end of the seriousness scale and merited a reduction of four weeks from the minimum three-month tariff. It must have been minor indeed, for there was little chance of Hartley making a successful plea for leniency based on a clean record. Five years ago, he was given a six-month break from the game without the option after being found guilty of gouging.
The hooker was legally represented at the hearing and was also able to call on the solid support of Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, and Jim Mallinder, the director of rugbyat Franklin's Gardens. "It is unfortunate for Dylan and Northampton, especially as he was in good form during the Six Nations," Rowntree said .
With the ban ending on 13 May, after the Premiership semi-finals weekend, Hartley will not play another game for his club this season unless Northampton reach the Aviva Premiership final, which will be staged at Twickenham a little under a fortnight later. This means that if, as is all but certain, he travels to South Africa for the June tour, he will be seriously underprepared for meeting one of the most ruthless scrums in the world game.
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