BEING punished for something that was not your fault is clearly contrary to natural justice. Yet that is exactly what has happened to Glasgow Warriors because of their inability to fulfil their Champions Cup pool game against Lyon, which should have taken place at Scotstoun yesterday.

Once they learned early last week that last Sunday’s opponents Exeter had returned a number of positive tests for Covid-19, Glasgow put 20 of their own players into self-isolation. With a number of other players out injured, Danny Wilson’s team did not have enough of a squad left to take the field against the French club, and on Wednesday it was announced that the match was off.

Normally, the solution would be to find a new date for the fixture - only this season, with the calendar more crowded than ever due to a late start and more international matches, no such provision has been made in the Champions Cup. So the game was cancelled, not postponed, and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), the tournament organisers, convened a committee to rule on it. That ruling was announced on Friday evening: a 28-0 defeat for Glasgow, who received no match points, while Lyon got five. 

The Warriors declined to make any public comment on the verdict, which the tournament rules had led them to expect. Having lost their first pool game against Exeter 42-0, they would have been hard pressed in any case to to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals, and that appears to have encouraged their desire to draw a line under the whole affair. 

There were also two mitigating factors that might have mollified their anger. First, they were not alone: the same 28-0 defeat was imposed on both Exeter and Bath for being unable to play their games against Toulouse and La Rochelle respectively. Second, the organisers made it clear in a statement that all three ‘defeated’ teams had not been deemed guilty of anything. “EPCR would like to emphasise that blame was not considered as a factor during the deliberations, and the committee’s decisions were made with a view to facilitating the completion of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup in unprecedented circumstances,” that statement read.

Yet the feeling of injustice rankles nonetheless. In effect what EPCR have said to Glasgow and the two English teams is “It’s not your fault but we’re going to penalise you anyway”.

Could there really be no better way of running the tournament, even in the midst of a pandemic? Can we do no better than merely muddle through?

Of course we can. For example, one way would be to record all cancelled games as 0-0 draws provided neither team was to blame, with both sides getting two match points.

EPCR certainly deserve some sympathy for the predicament they are in, and some credit for resolving to carry on with the tournament despite the twin difficulties of Covid and the crowded calendar. But they have done themselves no favours, either with their current disciplinary stance or originally with the way in which they chose to change the pool format.

Until this season, the Champions Cup comprised 20 teams in five pools of four. Each team played the other three in their pool home and away, and the five pool winners plus the three best runners-up went through to the quarter-finals.

This season’s revamp saw 24 teams entered for a pool stage which EPCR decided should consist only of four games instead of six. With the aim of the pools still being to produce eight quarter-finalists, the solution might have been to have eight pools of three, although that would have required more than four weekends. 

So instead, EPCR opted for two pools of 12, and a convoluted system in which every team had different opponents. Yes, that system means the pool stage can be completed in four weekends, with the top four in each pool progressing to the last eight. But it is unsatisfactory in so many ways, and undermines the credibility of what has traditionally been an excellent tournament.

Punishing teams for Covid-related reasons undermines that credibility some more. Whatever happens over the rest of the season, future record books would be well advised to include an asterisk beside the name of the eventual winners, with a footnote reminding us that the 2020-21 Champions Cup took place on an unlevel, and unjust, playing field.