Northampton and potential England Hooker ,Dylan Hartley has been banned for 6 months by the
RFU disciplinary committee for eye gauging two Wasps player's in a premiership match earlier this month.
The 21-year-old had been tipped to make England's squad for the South Africa tour and the World Cup but cannot now play again until 17 October.
The forward's absence is also a blow to Northampton's hopes of avoiding relegation from the Premiership.Northampton have until 1700 BST on Wednesday to lodge an appeal.
It is believed to be the longest suspension dished out to a top-flight England player since former Bath prop Kevin Yates received a six-month ban after being found guilty of ear-biting in 1998.
Hartley was cited by an independent match commissioner for making contact with the eye areas of Jonny O'Connor, Joe Worsley and James Haskell during Saints' 35-29 defeat at Adams Park.
He pleaded not guilty on all three counts but an RFU disciplinary panel found him guilty in relation to the incidents with Haskell and O'Connor but cleared him on the Worsley count.
Judge Jeff Blackett, chairman of the three-man panel, said: "Contact with an opponent's eyes is a serious offence because of the vulnerability of the area and risk of permanent injury.
"It is often the result of an insidious act and is one of the most abhorred by rugby players."
He added that the panel had decided 30 weeks was an appropriate punishment but reduced it to 26 "after taking into account his good character, youth and inexperience".
Hartley's actions had already been the subject of an internal investigation by the Premiership's bottom-placed club.
He was also banned from last Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final against Wasps by RFU disciplinary regulations which state players can take part in the English domestic matches until their cases are resolved.
Any thoughts please . That rules him out of RWC since that is in September. Was his sentence too harsh or correct?