Dylan Hartley
Hartley will be available for the start of England's Six Nations campaign but his international future remains clouded.Getty Images

Dylan Hartley has escaped missing England's Six Nations opener against Wales after being handed a three-week ban for elbowing Leicester Tigers centre Matt Smith.

The 28-year-old's previous disciplinary record, which has seen him serve 47 weeks' worth of suspensions, saw the Northampton Saints hooker's penalty extended beyond the fixed two-week tariff but will not impact on the international schedule.

A Rugby Football Union statement read: "The sanction reflects the low-end entry point of the offence, which carries a two-week tariff. 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."

Hartley is eligible to return from 12 January, over three weeks before Stuart Lancaster's side begin their championship campaign at the Millennium Stadium, but will miss the Premiership matches against Harlequins, Newcastle Falcons, and Sale Sharks.

The timing of Hartley's return is likely to coincide with the announcement of England's Six Nations squad in early January which could see the forward's place under scrutiny given his lack of competitive action and fears over his disciplinary record.

The red card at Franklin's Gardens is the second dismissal of Hartley's professional career, but the three-week ban represents the fifth time the player has faced a lengthy spell out of the game and draws concerns over his ability to remain composed ahead of the World Cup.

England's 2003 World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward said: "Hartley is England's No 1 hooker and you want him in your side, but not at the risk of him blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to win the World Cup on home soil.

"If Hartley can't be trusted to keep his cool, he doesn't play. Even losing a player for 10 minutes can upset the balance of a game — as Hartley found out last month when he was sin-binned during the defeat by the Springboks.

"You show your toughness in the scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls. Brawls, cheap shots and daft fights don't win you matches. Hartley must learn how to keep his cool."