Chris Ashton could quit English rugby if he is given a lengthy ban tonight.
The Saracens wing will appear before an RFU disciplinary panel in London for twice biting Northampton prop Alex Waller and if found guilty could be suspended for up to 48 weeks.
Ashton was banned for 10 weeks last season for gouging — a sentence the player and his supporters considered unduly harsh.
And those close to the 29-year-old are concerned that an even heavier penalty could lead Ashton, who believes he is being victimised, to make a fresh start across the Channel or even consider his future in the game.
His close friend, Dave Strettle, left Saracens last year to join Clermont Auvergne in the French Top 14 competition. Ashton would still have to serve the suspension were he to leave England and the two charges he faces carry a penalty of between 12 to 24 weeks each.
The wing turned down the chance to tour South Africa with the Saxons this summer but was told that it would not necessarily mean an end to a 39-cap career which started in 2010 against France in Paris and has brought him 19 tries. His last Test for England came against New Zealand in June 2014.
Saracens owner Nigel Wray today threw his support behind Ashton and said: “ What I am hearing described is absolutely not the Chris Ashton I know. I very much hope that Chris is not forced out of English rugby because he is a very well-liked and respected member of our family.
“He is one of the hardest workers in the game. I am not a lawyer, but if this was a legal matter the case would not even come to court.”
Former Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths, who helped to bring Ashton to the club in 2012, also backed the player. He said: “It is increasingly looking like there is one rule for Chris Ashton and one rule for every other professional rugby player in England. While a reputation is difficult to cast aside, in this case the reputation is far removed from reality. In English rugby, for citing officers and disciplinary panels, Chris has become guilty until proved innocent and that is a great shame.”
The then Bath prop Kevin Yates received a six-month ban for biting the ear of London Scottish flanker Simon Fenn in January 1998 but moved to New Zealand and played for Wellington Hurricanes before returning to England to join Sale in 2001. He became a Saracens player in 2004 and was called up for the England tour of South Africa in 2007, playing in two Test 10 years after making his debut.
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