Dylan Hartley will be free to play in the 2017 Six Nations tournament after being handed a six-week suspension. The England captain was summoned to appear before an independent committee in London on Wednesday (14 December) after being red carded for a dangerous swinging arm tackle on flanker Sean O'Brien during the second half of Northampton Saints' 37-10 European Champions Cup Pool 4 defeat to Pro12 contenders Leinster at Franklin's Gardens.
Such an offence, committed in front of England head coach Eddie Jones, took place just six minutes after Hartley had replaced Mike Haywood and provoked genuine fears that he could potentially miss the Six Nations due to a woeful previous disciplinary record that has seen the divisive 30-year-old accumulate 54 weeks worth of bans during his eventful career to date. Another suspension of at least eight weeks would have ruled him out of England's opening clash with France at Twickenham on 4 February.
As it stands, Hartley will be able to resume playing on 23 January. The New Zealand-born hooker pleaded guilty to striking and a three-person committee consisting of Simon Thomas, Rhian Williams and Marco Cordelli heard submissions from the player, legal representative Richard Smith QC and Northampton team manager Paul Shields before deciding upon a five-week ban as an entry point. They added a further two weeks for that poor prior record before subtracting one on account of his guilty plea.
Hartley, dropped by Stuart Lancaster from England's 2015 World Cup training squad after a four-week ban received for headbutting Saracens counterpart Jamie George, was widely seen as a controversial choice as captain following Jones' appointment last November. However, he subsequently silenced those doubters by leading his country throughout a phenomenal unbeaten year that saw the Red Rose win their first Six Nations Grand Slam for 13 years before subjecting Australia to a historic summer series whitewash on home soil and winning all four autumn internationals to equal their all-time record of 14 consecutive Test victories.
Further questions will now inevitably be raised regarding Hartley's suitability to the role after this latest transgression, although Rugby Football Union (RFU) chief Ian Ritchie provided his backing this week by suggesting that the skipper has "got credit in the bank" and "should be allowed to continue" his huge contribution.
Hartley is also regarded as being among the leading contenders to skipper the British and Irish Lions on their 2017 tour of New Zealand. Head coach Warren Gatland confirmed yesterday that he would not rule anyone out and claimed it was "so early to be thinking that far ahead".
"To be fair to Dylan in the last 12 months he has had a great track record and you have to feel for him," he said. "Hopefully he will take his punishment and get back for the Six Nations and hope he goes well."