Biting charge for Hartley puts England tour place in jeopardy

Dylan Hartley, the England hooker who re-established himself as a front-runner for British and Irish Lions duty in Australia next year with a strong showing in the Six Nations, will discover early next week if his impressive work over the last couple of months amounts to nothing.

Hartley has been ordered to appear before an independent disciplinary panel in London on Tuesday to face a charge of biting – a serious rugby crime that, if found to have taken place, will bring his season to an immediate end and jeopardise his chances of touring with the national team this summer.

A naturalised New Zealander who knows what it is to rebuild his career after an outbreak of violent excess – he was banned for six months in 2007 for gouging offences – Hartley is accused of biting the Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris on the finger during the first half of last weekend's match at Twickenham.

Nigel Owens, the Welshman who refereed the game, saw nothing of the alleged incident, but was heard to tell the rival captains that there was a "clear mark" on the Ulsterman's digit. Roger Morris, another Welshman, will chair next week's tribunal.

There will be a good deal at stake. Northampton, less than the sum of their parts when the energetic and inspirational Hartley is not in the middle of their front row, have designs on a Premiership play-off place and, conceivably, a first title.

England would not want to lose Hartley either. Hooker is one of the weaker positions in the current national set-up and Hartley's absence from the five-match, three-Test jaunt to South Africa in June would be a grievous blow.

Brad Barritt, the England centre whose tackle count in the Six Nations went off the scale, will start for Saracens, the Premiership champions, at Sale tonight. The bottom club, Newcastle, visit Worcester in the hope of eating into the eight points that separate them from Wasps, their fellow relegation candidates. The two clubs meet in High Wycombe in the last round on 5 May.

In Ireland, the great centre Brian O'Driscoll, injured since the World Cup, makes his first appearance of the northern-hemisphere season for Leinster in tonight's Pro 12 game against the Ospreys in Dublin.

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