Bite ban puts Hartley's England spot in danger

 

Dylan Hartley, far and away the best hooker in England, will be available for this summer's daunting 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 naturalised New Zealander 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 laid down by the International Rugby Board. 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 – another of rugby's unpardonable misdemeanours.

The hooker was legally represented at yesterday's hearing and was also able to call on the support of Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, and Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens.

"It is unfortunate for Dylan and Northampton, especially as he was in good form during the Six Nations and developed as a player and a leader," Rowntree said afterwards.

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 find their way to 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 under-prepared for meeting one of the most ruthless scrums in the world game.

Lee Mears, who took on the Boks in a Lions shirt in the first Test of the magnificent 2009 series, must fancy his chances of starting the match in Durban on 9 June – especially as Rob Webber, the Wasps forward who will join Mears at Bath next season, will not recover from shoulder surgery in time to make the trip.

Another international hooker finding himself in a degree of strife is Wales's Huw Bennett, whose failure to recover from an Achilles tendon injury suffered during the Six Nations victory over Scotland last month has left him contemplating a date with the surgeon. As Bennett has announced plans to join the French club Lyon next season, he has almost certainly played his last game for the Ospreys.

Unlike England, however, Wales will have a strong bank of hookers available for their three-Test tour of Australia, including the former national captain Matthew Rees and the highly promising Ken Owens.

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