Hartley back in Saints frame
Northampton's bid for a first Aviva Premiership title next weekend could be reinforced by the return to action of club captain and England hooker Dylan Hartley.
Hartley, who was sent off in last season's Premiership final defeat against Leicester and subsequently missed out on the British and Irish Lions' tour to Australia because of suspension, has not played since late March.
He suffered a shoulder injury during Saints' Premiership loss at home to Leicester and has been fighting a fitness battle ever since.
Hartley's England colleague Tom Wood skippered Northampton to Amlin Challenge Cup final glory through a 30-16 victory over Bath in Cardiff on Friday night, a result that ended Saints' run of four successive defeats in major finals.
But Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder confirmed that 28-year-old Hartley, who has won 55 caps, is now taking contact in training, which will also come as a boost for England head coach Stuart Lancaster.
Lancaster is without Leicester hooker Tom Youngs for next month's three-Test tour to New Zealand, while London Irish number two David Paice is absent through injury and Bath's Rob Webber has also been sidelined.
Although Hartley would miss the first Test in Auckland on June 7 because of next weekend's Premiership showdown with Saracens at Twickenham, he might now be in contention for the demanding trip to All Blacks territory.
"We have got a chance that he comes back into the equation, which might give us a completely fully-fit squad to choose from, so selection for next week is going to be massive," Mallinder said.
"He has improved again. He trained with the non-matchday 23 this week, so he's been out with them doing everything that they've done."
Asked if Hartley had been involved in contact work, Mallinder added: "Yes. He has got past that stage.
"We've got to decide. It is a big call. He has not played for a number of weeks, and our two hookers are playing really well, so they certainly will be putting their hand up."
The Saints players were in training recovery mode on Saturday after a superb second-half performance against Bath gave Northampton a second Challenge Cup triumph. They last lifted the trophy in 2009.
Fly-half Stephen Myler kicked 20 points, while Phil Dowson and Ben Foden scored tries after Bath led 13-6 at half-time, but Myler's opposite number George Ford missed three penalties in nine minutes that contributed to a major momentum shift.
"We went into the game with a strict game-plan in that we wanted to raise the intensity throughout," Northampton's England centre Luther Burrell said.
"In that second half, we started to give it a go and we knew they would start to blow. We managed to put them under pressure and played in the right part of the field, and we managed to get our rewards.
"Winning this trophy feels fantastic, not just for me but for the club. It has been a fantastic season, and it is good that now we can move on to next week.
"It is going to be a huge, huge challenge. Saracens have got a big squad and a very deep squad. They are good at rotating their players."
And Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson added: "It means so much. It is a stepping stone for things to come.
"We have been in four or five finals and been pipped at the post. We talked all season about winning one of the big trophies, and now we have gone there and done it.
"The messages we had at half-time were to keep playing, and it showed in that second half.
"We came out well, and two penalties got us back in the game. Then in the last 10 or 15 minutes, we still had the power left and players coming off the bench.
"We work hard on our fitness. We have big forwards and they are fit as well, and that is the beauty of it.
"We had internationals coming off the bench adding that tempo and that desire to win, so credit to the squad. We worked hard for 50 or 60 minutes, and then in the last 20 minutes we really turned the screw."