LONDON (AFP) -England hooker Dylan Hartley has been cleared to play in the forthcoming Six Nations tournament after receiving just a three-week ban for elbowing Leicester’s Matt Smith.
The 28-year-old pleaded guilty to the charge of striking Smith while playing for Northampton in their Premiership win over Leicester on Saturday.
It was feared the Saints captain would be hit with a long suspension given his poor disciplinary record, but a Rugby Football Union hearing, held via conference call on Tuesday, opted for a more lenient approach.
A ban of six weeks or more would have jeopardised Hartley’s chances of appearing in the Six Nations, which gets underway with England’s clash against Wales in early February, and his future Test career in light of a previous disciplinary rap sheet including eye-gouging, biting, punching and swearing.
Instead, Hartley will miss three Premiership games for Northampton – at Harlequins on December 27, at home to Newcastle on January 2 and at Sale on January 10.
“The sanction reflects the low end entry point of the offence, which carries a two-week tariff,” RFU judicial officer Jeremy Summers said.
“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 fairly mild punishment will be a huge relief to Hartley as England head coach Stuart Lancaster had warned the player he was in the last-chance saloon as a result of his failure to maintain discipline on the field.
Hartley’s roll 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 and Irish Lions tour as he was subsequently hit with an 11-week ban, and his latest indiscretion, in the 17th minute of Northampton’s 23-19 win at the weekend, has produced the fifth ban of his chequered career.
Referee J P Doyle initially seemed happy to award Hartley a yellow card, but television match official Sean Davey urged Doyle to watch further replays, and he responded by sending off Hartley.
Hartley, who has won 61 England caps, recently rejected a big-money contract offer from French Top 14 side Montpellier to sign a three-year deal with Northampton that will keep him at Franklin’s Gardens until 2018.
But that investment by Saints won’t pay dividends unless he can improve on a dismal record that has seen him banned for a total of 50 weeks during his career.