Dylan Hartley: Four-week ban rules England hooker out of start of Rugby World Cup

It remains to be seen how England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, reacts to this latest disciplinary setback

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The Independent Online

Dylan Hartley, the No 1 hooker in England when he is not banned from playing, has picked up yet another suspension – one that may turn out to be the most painful of his tempestuous career. The Northampton captain was suspended for four weeks by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal and will miss his country’s opening World Cup match against Fiji on 18 September, along with three warm-up games.

Hartley was cited for striking his opposite number, Jamie George, with his head during last weekend’s Premiership semi-final against Saracens at Franklin’s Gardens. It was the most minor of offences – more a head rub than a butt – and it went unpenalised by the match officials at the time. However, the New Zealand-born player admitted the charge at a hearing in Coventry and the panel members felt they had no option but to take action.

“There was no significant injury to the other party… and the incident did not affect the game,” said the tribunal chairman, Judge Sean Enright. “However, there cannot be any place in our game for this class of behaviour, and this is why we have imposed this sanction.”

The ban runs from 15 August, when England play the first of two preparatory Tests against the French, and covers the return match against the Tricolores in Paris, the “friendly” against Ireland at Twickenham in early September and, crucially, the all-too-serious Fijian date. The likelihood as things stand is that his great rival, Tom Youngs of Leicester, will take his place. Given the way Youngs is playing, he may not give it up again.

It remains to be seen how Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, reacts to this latest disciplinary setback. Having dropped Manu Tuilagi from his World Cup squad following the Leicester centre’s recent court conviction for assault, it would be no surprise if Hartley’s continuing behavioural problems have left Lancaster with a complete sense of humour failure. At the very least, he will have to read him the riot act. Again.

Meanwhile, one of England’s pool stage opponents, Wales, suffered a nasty blow of their own when one of their star backs, the midfielder Jonathan Davies, was ruled out of the global gathering through injury. The outside centre from Carmarthenshire, who played well enough on the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2013 to render the great midfielder Brian O’Driscoll surplus to requirements, ruptured a cruciate ligament during a league outing for the French club Clermont Auvergne against Montpellier last weekend and is expected to be incapacitated for at least six months.

Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, described the news as “disappointing”, which was something of an understatement. He has a ready-made replacement in the excellent Scott Williams, who played alongside Davies in the Llanelli-based Scarlets regional side until the latter’s decision to make some serious money in Top 14 rugby on the far side of the water, but even so, Gatland could have opted for the word “calamitous” without being accused of exaggeration.

Top-quality centres do not grow on trees: ask England, who have spent a full decade searching for a midfield combination that truly works for them.

As another Lions Test cap, Gavin Henson, is out of the Red Dragon reckoning after busting his fibula while on club duty with Bristol a week ago, the supply of experienced international operators is limited indeed.

Gatland revealed at least part of his contingency plan by withdrawing the much talked about Newport-Gwent Dragons youngster Tyler Morgan from the Wales Under-20 squad preparing for next week’s Junior World Cup in Italy.

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