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Hartley ready for England return

Dylan Hartley will return to action for England against the Barbarians on Sunday carrying the tag of an eye-gouger and a biter that weighs heavily around his shoulders.

The Northampton hooker has just served an eight-week suspension for biting the finger of Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in the last game of England's RBS 6 Nations campaign. Hartley had pleaded not guilty but the disciplinary panel ruled his reaction to Ferris' finger being inadvertently in or near his mouth was "not justifiable".

England forwards coach Graham Rowntree helped limit the ban, arguing Hartley was a changed man from the young hot-head who served a six-month ban for gouging in 2007. "That is the most damning thing for me. I had got to the stage where I had finally started proving people wrong," said Hartley, who was limited in what he could say on the verdict.

Despite his supporters, Hartley was still hit with a suspension, which expired on Monday, and fresh damage to a reputation he had worked so hard to correct.

He added: "I have had to deal with the gouging label. I was on the right path. It is easy for someone reading this to think 'he is a biter' but I have had players come to me who understand the circumstances.

"I had to accept the ban. I won't go into details about how I feel about it. I can't really talk about it. As long as the right people know (what happened)."

Looking ahead to the game, Hartley added: "I have had one eye on this date for a very long time. Whether it was the Premiership final (with Northampton) or the Barbarians game, I knew I was going to be playing this weekend.

"It gave me something to focus on and deal with the obvious disappointment of not being able to contribute on the field for Northampton.

"I have had two months getting myself in the mood. I have been looking forward to this.

"As a team it is a good chance to set ourselves up for the [South Africa] tour. Get a good win under our belt and get some confidence because this Barbarians team is impressive on paper."

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