Northampton captain Dylan Hartley will miss the British and Irish Lions’ tour to Australia after being hit with an 11-week ban for verbally abusing a match official.
England hooker Hartley was sent off for allegedly calling referee Wayne Barnes a “f****** cheat” just before halftime in Leicester’s 37-17 victory against his club in the Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday.
The 27-year old had his case heard by a Rugby Football Union (RFU) panel headed by Judge Jeff Blackett on Sunday.
The RFU confirmed their suspension rules Hartley out of the forthcoming Lions tour, although he does have the right of appeal, with Ireland’s Rory Best called up to replace him in Warren Gatland’s squad that leaves for Australia on Monday.
“We cannot get around the fact that Wayne Barnes was certain that Mr Hartley’s comments were directed at him,” Judge 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.”
Hartley has been the subject of three previous bans. In 2007, he was sidelined for six months for gouging and in 2012 was on the wrong end of suspensions for punching and biting.
Yet he was still supported by Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder after this latest incident.
“If you talk like that to a player then you wouldn’t expect anything to happen,” Mallinder said. “Clearly, Wayne Barnes believes that Dylan has spoken to him, and that’s why he has given him the red card.
“I’ll support Dylan. He’s my captain and if he said he wasn’t speaking to the referee and was speaking to the player on the floor, then I can only support my skipper in what he says.”
However, the RFU panel took a less lenient view of Hartley’s behaviour and were quick to hand out a suspension that leaves him on the sidelines until September.
“Dylan Hartley has been suspended for 11 weeks following an RFU Disciplinary hearing today,” the organisation confirmed in a statement.
“The hooker was sent off for abusing a match official, contrary to Law 10(4)(s) and (m) in Saturday’s Premiership final against Leicester Tigers at Twickenham Stadium.
“At the hearing he pleaded not guilty but the panel found him guilty and determined that this was mid-range on the scale of seriousness.
“The entry point for mid-range is a suspension of twelve weeks and that was reduced by one week to reflect his good conduct at the hearing.
“He is suspended from today (May 26) until July 6 and from August 17 to August 31 and free to play again on September 1.
“In accordance with the Lion tour agreement the six-week tour of Australia represents eight of the 11 weeks suspension because of the tour schedule. The remaining three weeks of the suspension cover three of Northampton Saints’ pre-season matches.”
Best, who had been appointed Ireland captain for the forthcoming tour of north America, will link up with the Lions ahead of their flight to Hong Kong.
The Lions play their first match against the Barbarians next Saturday.