Stuart Bathgate: Warriors fell victim of the unequal and unjust field of play of the EPCR

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Bathgate Stuart

It obviously goes against moral justice to be penalized for something that was not your fault. But that’s exactly what happened to Glasgow Warriors as they were unable to play their pool game against Lyon in the Champions Cup, which was expected to take place yesterday at Scotstoun.

Glasgow forced 20 of its own players into self-isolation, after learning early last week that last Sunday’s rival, Exeter, had turned in a series of positive tests for Covid-19. With a number of other players out injured, Danny Wilson’s side did not have enough squad to take on the French club and on Wednesday it was reported that the match had been called off.

The solution would usually have been to find a new match date – only this season, when the calendar is more busy than ever due to the late start and the many international matches, there was no such plan in the Champions Cup. So it was canceled instead of postponing the match, and the organizer of the competition, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), assembled a committee to decide. On Friday night, the decision was announced: a 28-0 loss for Glasgow, who won no match points, while Lyon got five.

The Warriors refused to publicly comment on the decision, which they predicted based on the rules of the tournament. It would have been hard for the Warriors to get a place in the quarter-finals anyway, after losing 42-0 to Exeter in their first pool match, and that seems to have motivated them to draw a line under the entire affair.

Two mitigating factors were also present that might have soothed their frustration. Second, they were not alone: both Exeter and Bath were inflicted with the same 28-0 loss for failing to play their games against Toulouse and La Rochelle, respectively. Secondly, in a statement, the organizers explained that all three “defeated” teams were not guilty of anything. “EPCR wishes to emphasize that culpability played no part in the deliberations and the committee’s decisions were made with the aim of enabling the Heineken Champions Cup to conclude this season in unprecedented circumstances,” the statement said.

Even, the feeling of unfairness persists. EPCR practically said, “It’s not your fault, but we’re punishing you anyway.” to Glasgow and the two English teams.

Is there really no better way, even in the midst of a pandemic, to run a tournament? Can’t we do more than just muddle through it?

We may, of course. For instance, one way would be to count all cancelled matches as 0-0 draws, provided neither team was at fault, and give two match points to both sides.

In spite of Covid’s double whammy of difficulty and crowded calendar, EPCR certainly deserves some respect for the predicament they find themselves in, and some credit for choosing to go ahead with the tournament. But with their new disciplinary stance or the way they initially changed the pool format, they have not done themselves any favors.

The Champions Cup featured 20 teams in five pools of four until this season. The remaining three were played by each team at home and away in their group, and the five pool winners and top three runners-up advanced to the quarterfinals.

24 teams were entered for a pool stage this season, which EPCR determined would consist of just four matches rather than six. Since the pools’ purpose was still to select eight quarterfinalists, it would have been possible to form eight three-team pools, but it would have taken more than four weekends.

Alternatively, EPCR preferred two pools of 12 and a dynamic scheme where each team had a different competitor. Yes, this scheme ensures that in four weekends the pool stage can be completed, with the top four of each pool progressing to the final eight. But in many aspects, it is unsatisfactory and damages the prestige of what has historically been an outstanding tournament.

Punishing teams for reasons relevant to Covid only destroys their reputation. Future record books will be well served to add an asterisk next to the name of the eventual winner, whatever happens for the rest of the season, with a footnote reminding us that the 2020-21 Champions Cup was played on an uneven and unequal playing field.

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