Saracens winger Chris Ashton has been ruled out of England’s entire RBS Six Nations campaign after being handed a 10-week suspension.
Prolific try-scorer Ashton, who won the last of his 39 England caps in New Zealand more than 18 months ago, has been widely backed to make the starting line-up for new coach Eddie Jones’ first game in charge.
But Ashton has been banned from playing until March 28 following an independent disciplinary hearing in London on Wednesday.
Ashton, who pleaded not guilty to making contact with the eye of Ulster centre Luke Marshall during Saturday’s European Champions Cup tie, has the right to appeal the decision.
England begin their campaign against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 6 before their final match of the tournament against at the Stade de France on March 19.
Marshall was one of two Ulster tacklers tying up full-back Ben Ransom early on in Saracens’ 33-17 triumph, with the incident coming as Ashton tried to keep the ball alive for his side.
The lengthy ban, which ends nine days after the conclusion of the Six Nations, will come as a huge blow to the 28-year-old who last year was overlooked for England’s World Cup squad.
A statement from European Professional Club Rugby read: “Ashton was cited by the match Citing Commissioner, Yves Thieffine (France), for allegedly making contact with the eye(s) and/or eye area of the Ulster Rugby centre, Luke Marshall (No 13), in the 16th minute of the European Rugby Champions Cup Round 5 match at Allianz Park in contravention of Law 10.4 (m).
“The independent Judicial Officer, Jean-Noel Couraud (France), heard evidence and submissions from Ashton, who pleaded not guilty to the offence, from the Saracens Team Manager, JP O’Reilly, from the Saracens legal representative, Chris Smith, and from the EPCR Disciplinary Officer, Liam McTiernan.
“In upholding the citing complaint, the Judicial Officer found that Ashton had committed an act of foul play that warranted a red card. He determined that that offence was at the low end of World Rugby’s sanctions and selected 12 weeks as the appropriate entry point.
“He added one week as a deterrent according to World Rugby’s memorandum regarding offences of this nature, before reducing the sanction by three weeks due to Ashton’s good character and good conduct at the hearing. He then imposed a suspension of 10 weeks.
“Ashton is free to play on Monday, 28 March 2016. Both the player and EPCR have the right to appeal the decision.”