Dylan Hartley, the Northampton Saints and some-time England captain, is set to forfeit his coveted place on the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia after being shown the first red card in an English Premiership final, which Leicester Tigers won 37-17.
Hartley will face a disciplinary meeting this morning chaired by disciplinary chief Judge Jeff Blackett. If found guilty he is almost certain to receive a ban that would rule him out of the tour, as all the Lions are required to be in Perth for the second match of the trip, against Western Force on 5 June.
Hartley was sent off for allegedly calling the referee, Wayne Barnes, "a fucking cheat", though last night it appeared the hooker will mount a defence that the abuse was directed at Leicester hooker and fellow Lion Tom Youngs.
Hartley, aged 27, had already been warned for giving backchat to England's top international referee who was controlling his fifth final, when just before half-time he stood up from a scrum and launched the abuse. Barnes showed Hartley a straight red card, confirming to Tom Wood, who took over as Saints' captain: "This player has called me a fucking cheat, he must leave the field."
Hartley's version was backed by Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby: "I'll support Dylan in what he says, he's my captain, and a number of senior players around him agreed he was looking down at Youngs."
Hartley's outburst was heard over the Ref!Link microphone which was being used by many spectators in the 81,703 Twickenham crowd, as well as being audible to the television audience.
Also not in the player's favour is his awful disciplinary record. He was banned for two weeks last December for striking Ulster's Rory Best – a possible beneficiary of any suspension – to add to eight weeks in the 2012 Six Nations for biting Steve Ferris and 26 weeks in 2007 for gouging.
Yesterday's contentious scrum had resulted from Northampton's Steve Myler kicking the ball out on the full for half-time only for Barnes to admonish him and say he had warned the fly-half not to do precisely that.
In the previous exchange between Barnes and Hartley, who skippered England once on tour in South Africa last summer, the referee called the New Zealand-born hooker aside and told him: "This is not how you behave as a captain. If you talk like that to me I'll have to deal with it."
The Lions tour squad of 37 players was originally named with three hookers: Hartley, Youngs and Wales's Richard Hibbard.
The incident left first-time finalists Northampton playing the second half with 14 men and overshadowed a cracking match which contained four Leicester tries to their East Midlands rivals' three.
It give the Tigers their 10th English League title, and a fourth win in their amazing run of nine straight finals.
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