ENGLAND hooker Dylan Hartley’s British and Irish Lions dreams were in tatters yesterday when he was handed an 11-week ban after being sent off in Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final.
Hartley was suspended for calling referee Wayne Barnes “a f****** cheat” during his club Northampton’s 37-17 defeat against Leicester.
He had claimed after the game, via Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder, that his comments were aimed at the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and he pleaded not guilty.
But Hartley’s argument was rejected by the three-man disciplinary panel, chaired by Judge Jeff Blackett, who handed down the third significant suspension of a chequered career.
Ireland’s Rory Best has been called up as a replacement and it is hoped he will be able to join the party which leaves for Hong Kong from London tonight,
“We cannot get around the fact that Wayne Barnes was certain that Mr Hartley’s comments were directed at him,” Blackett said.
“Wayne Barnes said that, if he had had any doubt in his mind, then he would have given the player the benefit of the doubt.
“In terms of sanction, calling a referee a cheat is an attack on his integrity and contrary to the core values of rugby and, therefore, we have taken a serious view and provided a serious sanction.”
Northampton are understood to be waiting until they receive the full written judgement from Blackett, the RFU’s chief disciplinary officer, before deciding whether or not to appeal.
The Lions play their first match against the Barbarians next Saturday and tour manager Andy Irvine said: “With uncertainty over the availability of Dylan Hartley to tour, and with the first of ten matches only days away, we had no option but to call up the additional player.
“Despite the circumstances, we should congratulate Rory, who will join the squad tomorrow and fly with us to Hong Kong.
“A final decision on whether Dylan Hartley will take any part in the tour will depend on the outcome of any potential appeal.”
Hartley’s disciplinary record includes bans for eye-gouging (26 weeks), biting (eight weeks) and punching (two weeks) – but this one is the most costly of all because it rules him out of the Lions tour.
Hartley also became the first player to be sent off in a Premiership final. Two minutes before the red card incident, Barnes had admonished Hartley and warned he would take action if he felt any further comments were directed at him.
Hartley has also told Mallinder that a number of senior players would support his version of events, that Youngs was the target of his accusation and not Barnes.
While Hartley was absent from last night’s farewell dinner in central London, Best is planning to join up with his new team-mates today.
The Ulster hooker, who has been capped 67 times, is expected to fly to London tomorrow. He said: “It hasn’t fully sunk in yet, it is hard to describe because it is the ultimate for a rugby player,” he told www.ulsterrugby.com.