Graham Rowntree revealed Dylan Hartley “might well soon” be made England captain in testimony which helped limit the Northampton hooker’s biting ban to eight weeks.
Hartley, 26, was found guilty of biting the finger of Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in England’s 30-9 RBS Six Nations victory at Twickenham.
The independent disciplinary panel ruled Hartley’s reaction to finding Ferris’ finger inadvertently in or near his mouth was “not justifiable” and banned him until 14 May.
Hartley could have faced a much lengthier suspension given he was banned for six months in 2007 for eye-gouging Wasps players Jonny O’Connor and James Haskell in the same match.
But the panel decided against a potential 12 weeks following “glowing” character references by Rowntree and Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder, so he will be available for the Aviva Premiership final at the end of May, if Northampton qualify, and for England’s summer tour of South Africa.
Rowntree, the England forwards coach, insisted on speaking on Hartley’s behalf and detailed the “massive change” he has seen in the player since his “struggle in 2007”, describing Hartley as “a beacon and a leader” and he added “no-one had more credibility with his peers”.
Rowntree said Hartley “was very close to having been made captain of the national team and might well soon become captain”, adding that Hartley’s reputation is “completely unfounded” and that “if you look at the many videotapes of the matches in which he has played you will see a man of humility and respect”.
Mallinder, who made Hartley the Northampton captain, said the player had matured in the five years since his previous suspension.
Hartley told the panel he was a different person to the “loose” and “unpredictable” character from 2007.
The panel accepted Rowntree and Mallinder’s plea for them to recognise Hartley as being “very different from the man who committed the offence in 2007”. The full 13-page report, signed by chairman Roger Morris, says: “The easy course for the committee to follow was to ignore what they had heard and take the player’s previous suspension into account. However to do that would have been to rely on the anecdotal baggage surrounding the player and not on the facts before them.
“It would also fail to acknowledge that the purpose of sanction is also to cause an offender to think again about his behaviour and that, the committee felt compelled to conclude, was what the player had done.”
Meanwhile, Bath’s hopes of snatching a Heineken Cup spot next season are fading fast after Northampton shrugged off the midweek suspensions of skipper Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark to claim a comfortable 26-6 win at the Recreation Ground yesterday.
Saints duly moved back into the play-off places thanks to a first-half penalty try converted by Ryan Lamb, who added two penalties and a drop goal before the break.
Stephen Myler converted a catch-and-drive try credited to former Bath hooker Andy Long to seal the victory. Stephen Donald kicked two penalties for the home side, whose season is petering out with owner Bruce Craig already seeking a new man to take charge of the playing side from Sir Ian McGeechan.