Hartley banned for three weeks but can play in Six Nations

England hooker available for opener with Wales – if selected

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The Independent Online

Dylan Hartley has been handed a Six Nations reprieve after receiving a three-week ban for his red card for elbowing Leicester centre Matt Smith.

The England hooker pleaded guilty to the charge of striking in a disciplinary hearing held via conference call last night.

A ban of six weeks or more would have jeopardised both Hartley’s Six Nations chances and his future Test career  in light of a disciplinary record that includes eye-gouging, biting, punching and swearing.

Hartley was sent off after just 17 minutes of Northampton’s 23-19 victory over Leicester at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday. The referee J P Doyle was prepared to award a yellow card until television match official Sean Davey urged the review of further replays, prompting the hooker’s dismissal.

The 61-cap front-rower pleaded guilty at the RFU hearing, with sole judicial officer Jeremy Summers suggesting Hartley’s previous poor disciplinary record contributed to the length of his punishment. Hartley’s latest ban will take his total of career suspensions to 50 weeks.

“The sanction reflects the low end entry point of the offence, which carries a two-week tariff,” said Summers in an RFU statement.

“The entry point was aggravated having regard to Dylan’s previous record and a week was taken off to reflect mitigating circumstances.

“As such the sanction reflects the player’s record rather than the seriousness of the offence itself.”

The England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, had vowed Hartley was in the “last-chance saloon” after his red card for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes during the 2013 Premiership final. Lancaster was also said to be furious with Hartley for conceding a cheap yellow card in the autumn Test defeat to South Africa.

Any heavy sanction following Saturday’s red card in the Premiership East Midlands derby would have put Hartley’s long-term England career at serious risk.

The decision by Summers to impose a three-week ban alleviates some of the scrutiny on Hartley, however, and paves the way for the hooker to ease back into the Test arena once more.

Hartley will miss three Northampton games – against Harlequins on Saturday, at home to Newcastle on 2 January and at Sale on 10 January – but will be available for England’s opener in the Six Nations against Wales in  Cardiff on 6 February.

Hartley’s catalogue of shame began with a 26-week ban in April 2007 for gouging the eyes of Wasps forwards James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor.

An eight-week ban followed in March 2012 after he was found to have bitten Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris’  finger, before receiving a two-week penalty in December of the same year for punching Ulster’s Rory Best.

Hartley’s disciplinary shortcomings reached a personal nadir in May 2013 when swearing at referee Wayne Barnes during Northampton’s Premiership final defeat to Leicester. That cost the New Zealand-born hooker a red card and his place on the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia as he was subsequently hit with an 11-week ban.

Hartley viewed Northampton’s 24-20 triumph in this year’s Premiership final as considerable personal redemption: now, though, he has more fences to mend.

He recently rejected a big-money contract offer from Montpellier to sign a three-year deal with Northampton that will keep him at Franklin’s Gardens until 2018.

Meanwhile, Northampton have stemmed a recent player exodus to France by securing Stephen Myler and George Pisi on new contracts at Franklin’s Gardens.

The Saints fended off competition to retain England fly-half Myler and Samoa centre Pisi, with backs Tom Stephenson and James Wilson also completing new deals. “We’re delighted that all four of these players have decided to stay with us and continue their career  at the Saints,” said rugby director Jim Mallinder.

Hartley’s record: crimes and bans

2007 Banned for 26 weeks for eye-gouging Wasps’ James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor

March 2012 Received an eight-week suspension for biting Ireland forward Stephen Ferris’s finger in the Six Nations

December 2012 Banned for two weeks for punching Ulster hooker Rory Best

2013 Sent off for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes during the Aviva Premiership final against Leicester at Twickenham. Received an 11-week suspension that sidelined him for the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia

2014 Sent off for elbowing Leicester’s Matt Smith in the face. Banned for three weeks