Dylan Hartley: England captain may return for Northampton's Premiership semi-final

Dylan Hartley
Dylan Hartley's last game for England was against Australia at Twickenham in November

England captain Dylan Hartley could feature in Northampton's Premiership semi-final at Exeter next Saturday.

The 33-year-old hooker has not played since 21 December after injuring his knee, and missed the Six Nations.

Hartley has returned to training with Northampton, but is unlikely to start at Sandy Park, having missed Saints' 40-21 loss at Exeter on the final day.

"It'll be a really big ask for him to come into that level of things straight away," said Saints boss Chris Boyd.

"To do that generally you need to be physically tough and mentally tough and very resilient and I think he's all of those things, so time will tell."

England head coach Eddie Jones will announce a preliminary World Cup squad next month before naming his final party to go to Japan in July.

Jones could be without first-choice loose-head prop Maku Vunipola, who tore his hamstring in Saracens' European Champions Cup final win over Leinster earlier this month, so Hartley's experience would be even more vital in England's front row.

Saints lost hooker Reece Marshall through injury after just five minutes of their loss at Exeter, with James Fish brought on to play the majority of the game as they finished the regular season in fourth place.

"He trained fully with us on Monday and Tuesday and trained really well," Boyd added about Hartley.

"We had Wednesday off and when he came back in on Thursday he was feeling the effects of that training.

"He probably could have played, but at the end of the day if he had been here and Reece Marshall had been out five minutes into the game, if Dylan had been on the bench I doubt he would have got through 75 minutes at the physical level that that game was.

"When you have lower-limb injuries it's not just the rehab on the injury, but you've got to try to get some match fitness as well and clearly he hasn't had a lot of that lately."