Banned Hartley could still be appointed Lions skipper
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has said that Dylan Hartley's latest ban will not see him ruled out of consideration for the captaincy of this summer's tour to New Zealand.
The England skipper was handed a six week suspension yesterday for his red card against Leinster in the Champions Cup last week.
The 30-year-old - who has now amassed 60 weeks of bans throughout his career - was sent off for a swinging arm tackle on Leinster's Irish international flanker Sean O'Brien in contravention of World Rugby Law 10.4 (a).
Hartley's latest transgression has opened up further debate regarding whether he should have the honour of the Lions captaincy bestowed upon him, with Ulsterman Rory Best among those also thought to be vying for the role.
Best, who toured Australia with the Lions in 2013 only after Hartley was suspended for verbal abuse of a referee, has massively strengthened his case in recent months, leading Ireland to a historic victory over the same All Black side that await Gatland's men this summer during the autumn internationals.
And the Kiwi-born coach praised Ireland's latest centurion last week, saying he had noted how Best's leadership had evolved since succeeding Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell as national skipper, while adding how impressed he had been with the Banbridge man's reaction to the initial snub four years ago.
That was before Hartley's latest disciplinary issues, with the six week ban being handed down at a London hearing yesterday.
The panel heard submissions from Hartley, as well as former Ulster hooker Paul Shields who is now team manager at Northampton Saints.
It was decided the offence was in the mid-range, meaning a starting suspension of five weeks.
His lengthy rap sheet meant the committee added two weeks to the sanction, only to decrease it by one due to a guilty plea.
Crucially, the ban will not run into the Six Nations, meaning Hartley will be free to lead England throughout their title defence.
And Gatland has left little doubt about his stance on Hartley's availability for the upcoming tour.
"Absolutely not," said the Kiwi when asked if Hartley had once again ruled himself out of contention due to ill-discipline.
"There are a number of people who will be in contention for a potential captain's role. But for us it will be about picking the squad first.
"There is a lot of water to go under the bridge before those sort of things are finalised.
"To be fair to Dylan in the last 12 months he has had a great track record and you have to feel for him.
"Hopefully he will take his punishment and get back for the Six Nations and hope he goes well."