sport

Hartley remains doubtful

Dylan Hartley's involvement in the Aviva Premiership final and England's tour to New Zealand continues to hang in the balance.

The Northampton captain has been sidelined for nearly two months with a shoulder injury and despite returning to training this week, is still restricted by a reduction in strength in the joint.

Saints will decide on Friday morning whether he is ready to face Saracens at Twickenham the following afternoon with director of rugby Jim Mallinder insisting he is under consideration to start.

Even if he fails to make Northampton's matchday squad, there is still a chance he could fly to New Zealand with a view to participating in the second and third Tests.

"It's touch and go whether he plays and whether we chance him," Mallinder said.

"If he's fit enough to be in the 23 and take part, the question is do you start him?

"With his improvement there's a very good chance he'll be fit for New Zealand.

"(England coach) Stuart Lancaster has taken four hookers already, but if Dylan is fit to tour then I don't think he'll have any hesitation taking him. And he'll probably play.

"Stuart has said to me that if he plays for us, he's definitely on the plane.

"Stuart's not said that if he doesn't play for you, he's not on the plane."

Mallinder admits Hartley, who was sent off in last year's Premiership final for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes, is "desperate" to face beaten Heineken Cup finalists Saracens on Saturday.

"We know he's an outstanding player and one of the best hookers around. We know what he does for the squad as well," Mallinder said.

"But we have to balance knowing he could the job for us at the weekend, knowing he'll be better than the other two we have got and also thinking about his health and whether he's at risk by playing.

"Dylan is desperate to play and if you asked him he'd say he's fit."

Hartley's fitness is of equally pressing concern to England, who are facing a crisis at hooker ahead of their series against the All Blacks which opens on Saturday week.

Tom Youngs is unable to tour for family reasons, denying Lancaster his second choice in the position, while next-in-line Rob Webber is struggling with a knee problem.

Dan Cole's absence at tighthead prop due to a bulging disc in his neck requiring surgery and fresh fitness concerns over looseheads Mako Vunipola, who has knee damage, and hip-injury victim Joe Marler have decimated the front row options.

England's most valued asset in the number one jersey is Alex Corbisiero, but the British and Irish Lion only started his first game since October in Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup final victory over Bath.

It was decided to give Corbisiero the summer off, a decision strongly supported by Mallinder.

"On the face of it and from a physical, rugby point of view, Alex is fit to play and to tour," Mallinder said.

"But what we're doing is right and when I say 'we' I mean Stuart, myself, England's medics and our medics.

"We're looking at the long-term for Alex Corbisiero and the best thing for him long-term is to have a holiday after this weekend.

"He'll come back to a reconditioning programme for him to make sure he's in the best shape possible for next year leading into the World Cup.

"Alex has had bad experiences with both knees. At the moment he has no pain and is running freely and is confident.

"Nobody would ever like to say it will never reoccur, but what we do know is that Alex needs to be managed for the rest of his career."

Northampton are one victory away from a first Premiership title and Mallinder outlined the impact being crowned English champions would have at Franklin's Gardens.

"We are a big club in a massive rugby area where rugby means so much. The whole town get behind us," he said.

"We've won a Heineken Cup which is a big achievement and if we won a Premiership it would be huge and the effects would be massive."