Northampton captain Dylan Hartley’s British and Irish Lions hopes appear to lie in tatters after he was sent off for dissent during Saints’ Aviva Premiership final defeat against Leicester.
The England hooker was dismissed during first-half injury time by Wayne Barnes for appearing to swear at the referee. Hartley had been warned about his conduct just two minutes beforehand.
He now faces a minimum six-week ban. Rugby Football Union disciplinary bosses are unlikely to take a lenient view, considering he has already served three previous suspensions during his firebrand career.
Hartley can expect a disciplinary hearing early this week. The Lions leave for Hong Kong tomorrow, with Hartley currently one of three hookers among a 37-man squad.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland, a strict disciplinarian, could now launch an immediate search to replace Hartley. Ireland hooker Rory Best would be favourite to join the three-Test trip to Australia.
A fiery final saw Leicester skipper Toby Flood not last the first half because of concussion, while Northampton assistant coach Dorian West, speaking during a pitchside television interview, accused Leicester boss Richard Cockerill of “intimidating” match officials.
The game ultimately went Tigers’ way as wings Niall Morris and Vereneki Goneva, lock Graham Kitchener and Lions centre Manu Tuilagi scored tries, with Flood booting a penalty and conversion and his replacement George Ford kicking four penalties. But Northampton, despite being down to 14 men, conjured up tries from Stephen Myler, Ben Foden and Lee Dickson.
Leicester deservedly lifted their first Premiership title since 2010, but it will be overshadowed by Hartley.
Leicester flew out of the starting blocks, scoring ten quick points to leave Northampton wondering what had hit them.
Flood kicked a penalty, and then his defence-splitting inside pass sent Goneva clear. Centre Anthony Allen took the move on before Flood teased Saints’ defence and timed his scoring pass perfectly to Morris. Flood landed the conversion.
But their opponents’ response was impressive, hitting back through a Myler after a quick penalty.
Leicester then suffered a couple of injury scares, firstly when Lions flanker Tom Croft landed on his shoulder, before Flood came off second best following a crunching Courtney Lawes tackle. The Leicester coaching staff were left fuming by Lawes’ hit, and Flood needed five minutes of treatment until he went off for concussion checks.
Leicester forged their way back into the game when full-back Mathew Tait sprinted into space, and Ford, on his final Tigers appearance, kicked Leicester 13-5 ahead.
Matters disintegrated for Saints after Foden thought he had scored a try, only for the television match official to rule otherwise. Myler, having been told by Barnes, that he could not put a 22-metre restart into touch on the full during injury time, promptly did so and the official went back infield for a scrum.
Northampton then infringed, Hartley lost his cool and he received a straight red card, trudging off as Ford kicked the penalty for a 16-5 interval advantage.
Foden cut the arrears with a try early in the second half, but that was cancelled out by Kitchener’s touchdown before resilient Northampton struck again when Dickson crossed and Myler converted.
It was heroic stuff in adversity from Northampton, yet Leicester’s numerical advantage had to tell eventually, and scores from Tuilagi and Goneva finished Saints off.