Dylan Hartley, the England hooker and occasional national captain who missed the recent autumn series with injury, was a relieved man tonight after avoiding the worst consequences of a Heineken Cup dust-up with his Irish opposite number Rory Best – perhaps his principal rival for a Lions Test place against the Wallabies in Australia next summer. Hartley was banned for a fortnight after admitting striking Best with his arm during the Northampton-Ulster match at Franklin's Gardens a week ago.
Back in the Northampton side after a knee ligament problem that cost him appearances in four recent Tests, Hartley fell out with Best after a series of scrums in the second half of a game won comprehensively by the visitors. The Midlanders' captain appeared to hit the Ulsterman more than once – an assault that could have seen him banned for much of next month and wrecked his chances of returning to the England side in time for the start of the Six Nations Championship.
Fortunately for the player, the independent judicial officer Roger Morris considered it to be a "low-end" crime and suspended him until 24 December – a decision that prevents Hartley playing in the return match against Ulster tomorrow and will keep him out of his club's Premiership meeting with Harlequins seven days later. He will, however, have four matches in the new year in which to make up ground on Tom Youngs of Leicester, who played in the autumn Tests and performed particularly well in the win over the All Blacks.
Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues scrum-half Lloyd Williams was suspended for five weeks for tip-tackling Montpellier half-back Benoît Paillaugue last weekend. Williams was sent off and was always likely to receive a significant punishment for committing one of rugby's "crimes of the moment". His case was heard by Jeremy Summers of England, who decided that the offence was of the "mid-range" variety, carrying a minimum ban of eight weeks. In line with International Rugby Board directives he added a week before lopping off a month of the sentence in light of Williams' guilty plea, previous good character and "clear remorse".
Tonight's Heineken Cup pool games are significant. If Racing Métro complete the double over Edinburgh at Murrayfield, they will crank up the heat on Saracens, who host Munster in a must-win encounter on Sunday. In Biarritz, Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy will both start against Connacht in an effort to keep the Basques in the competition.