Dylan Hartley's inability to stay on the right side of the rugby law has been costing him dear for six years now, but the price the Northampton captain must pay for abusing the international referee Wayne Barnes during the Premiership final at Twickenham at the weekend is heavy even by his standards. Hartley was banned for 11 weeks – a punishment that strips him of the British and Irish Lions status that meant so much to him.
When the Lions fly out of Heathrow tonight for their Test series in Australia, the Ireland hooker Rory Best will be in the seat originally reserved for Hartley. It is the second time in as many tours that the British Isles hierarchy have had to make a late change to their squad for disciplinary reasons.
Four years ago, before the trip to South Africa, the Munster flanker Alan Quinlan was dropped after being found guilty of a gouging offence and replaced in the touring party by Tom Croft of England.
Hartley appeared before a Rugby Football Union tribunal in Epsom following his dismissal by Barnes midway through the Leicester-Northampton showpiece 24 hours earlier. Barnes had already warned the 27-year-old forward for making unsuitable remarks when, at a scrum on the stroke of half-time, he heard Hartley use the words "f*****g cheat", decided they had been aimed in his direction and flourished the dreaded red card.
According to his club coaches, Hartley claimed he had been speaking to his direct opponent and Lions rival Tom Youngs rather than the referee, and the accused duly pleaded not guilty at the hearing. His version of events did not wash. The panel, chaired by the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett, suspended him until the start of September. "We cannot get around the fact that Wayne Barnes was certain that Mr Hartley's comments were directed at him," Judge Blackett commented. "He said that if there had been any doubt in his mind, he would have given the player the benefit of that doubt. Calling a referee a cheat is an attack on his integrity and contrary to the core values of rugby. Therefore, we have taken a serious view and provided a serious sanction."
In 2007, Hartley missed the World Cup in France after receiving a long suspension for gouging offences during a club game against Wasps. Since then, he has been banned for biting and punching, and this latest incident means he has now been accused of, and banned for, committing most of rugby's deadlier sins. Yet Northampton valued him enough to appoint him captain on a long-term basis, and Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, also trusted him sufficiently to shoulder the burden of leadership in South Africa a year ago.
The naturalised New Zealander, born in Rotorua, is considered by many good judges to be the most gifted hooker in these islands, and some of his club performances for Northampton this season have been of the highest calibre.
"I'm sure he's hurting deeply," said Lancaster, "but it's the way it is when you transgress. What we've always stressed inside the England camp since I've been involved is that if you don't have a rigorous approach to discipline, you hurt yourself and you hurt the team. I have to say that he's been very good in our environment, but he'll be suffering for this."
A new England elite squad will be named in August. Will Lancaster pick Hartley for his talent, or decide he is a liability? "We choose people on the grounds of form, fitness and the trust we have in them," the coach replied. "Dylan is no different to anyone else and all that will be taken into account."
Crime sheet: Hartley's misdemeanours
Northampton hooker is banned for 26 weeks after being found guilty of eye-gouging both James Haskell and Jonny O'Connor in a Premiership match against Wasps. Misses the 2007 World Cup.
Claims of gouging against Scotland's Ross Ford in a Six Nations match are dropped when the alleged victim decides not to make a complaint.
Handed an eight-week ban after being found guilty of biting Ireland hooker Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations match at Twickenham.
Sin-binned against South Africa in first match as England captain.
Banned for two weeks after a Heineken Cup match for punching Ulster hooker Rory Best – who will go on to take his place for the 2013 Lions tour.
Named in Lions squad for tour of Australia but loses place after receiving an 11-week ban following red card in Premiership final.