HOOKER Richard Hibbard has been ruled out of the Dragons’ knockout European clash with Northampton with a fractured hand.

The 37-year-old former Wales and Lions international was forced off in the early stages of Sunday’s Guinness PRO14 win against Edinburgh at Principality Stadium.

Hibbard’s has his right hand in a cast and will not be able to join forces with Six Nations winner Elliot Dee in the clash against the Saints in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm).

The combative front rower had been rolling back the years with some superb displays, scoring a hat-trick from driving lineouts against Connacht and then playing the full 80 minutes in the wins against the Ospreys and Glasgow.

Surgery will not be needed but Hibbard faces a spell on the sidelines with the aim of returning at the end of the campaign.

South Wales Argus:

“It's a blow because he has been in great form in recent weeks,” said director of rugby Dean Ryan.

He has been great for us, not only with 80-minute shifts but in true 'Hibbs' style.

“He is back to what we know him for - he has been throwing himself around and has been powerful at the set piece.

“He has been central to our form and it's a huge loss because we wanted to see Elliot coming back as great competition rather than a selection.”

Dee was on the bench as Ken Owens’ back-up for all of Wales’ Six Nations fixtures, coming on in every game apart from the opener against Ireland.

South Wales Argus: STARTER: Elliot Dee will come into the Dragons XV against NorthamptonSTARTER: Elliot Dee will come into the Dragons XV against Northampton

He will start his first game since the loss to the Scarlets in Llanelli on New Year’s Day and Rhys Lawrence is set to be cover on the bench, although the Dragons could be looking to add to their options with a loan.

“We are looking at options as well because it's a situation that we have to look at with Ellis Shipp injured as well,” said Ryan. “We have got to look at what is available.”

Lawrence was released last summer but made a swift return to Rodney Parade on a deal until the end of the season in October.

The 32-year-old has made a solitary appearance, against Ulster as a makeshift back rower because of injuries, and was an unused replacement against the Ospreys and Glasgow.

Ellis Shipp, who had been battling Hibbard for the 2 jersey, is sidelined with a knee injury.

The Dragons confirm their team at midday on Friday with Ryan having had a tough choice in midfield with fit-again Jamie Roberts, Nick Tompkins, Aneurin Owen and Jack Dixon his options.

He has also had to mull over whether Wales tighthead Leon Brown will start or come off the bench given the form of Lloyd Fairbrother.