Georgia have been banging on the door of European rugby’s powers that be for several years now.
When The Lelos hosted Russia in March 2017, a sell-out crowd of 55,000 turned out in Tbilisi to watch the game.
And those kind of attendances have been pretty regular occurrences in recent years, with the game steadily growing in stature after winning the second-tier competition – Rugby Europe International Championships – for eight of the last ten seasons.
Widely regarded as the best team outside of the top-tier Six Nations sides, many believe the eastern European outfit are at least as deserving as Italy to be included in the championship.
They were even ranked two places ahead of Italy prior to this year’s Six Nations, but this is largely because the Azzurri face top opposition in the majority of their fixtures, while Georgia’s rankings points were recorded from wins over the likes of Germany and Belgium.
And even when Georgia faced the perpetual Six Nations whipping boys last November, they were blown off the park, which underlines the gulf in class between tier one and tier two teams at present.
With various developments in place to help improve lower-ranked sides, it’s hard to see the Georgians mixing with Europe’s elite any time soon, even if there have been calls for their inclusion in the Six Nations.
A quick review of the top nations they have faced since 2017 and only two high profile nations stand out, where they were narrowly beaten by Wales (13-6) and hammered by Argentina (45-19).
Still, if their 2018 form is anything to go by, where they won eight out their 11 Tests, then confidence should be high ahead of September’s World Cup.
With Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay to play in Pool D, the Georgians should be targeting at least one or two victories in Japan and cap a best-ever World Cup display.
In their last four appearances at rugby’s global showpiece, they have averaged one victory, with their most productive tournament coming in 2015, when they triumphed against Namibia and Tonga.
In terms of playing style, Georgia are a big, powerful side that will take some beating, regardless of the opposition.
Whereas No10 is the most central position for teams like Australia and Wales, it’s the forwards who tend to be the heroes in Georgia, with the game being heavily based on set-piece power.
The Georgian style of play is like many of the eastern European nations, making rugby like another form of wrestling. Their pack are primarily made up of former wrestlers who will turn the scrum and maul into an arm wrestle in a bid to steal possession.
Expect plenty of big ball carriers to ruck, maul and scrummage the ball up the field at every opportunity.
In the backs, there is little spark to set the world alight, and although they try hard, their timing and positioning that can let them down when trying to defend opposition attacks.
The squad itself largely play their rugby in France, with 16 players plying their trade in the TOP14 and PRO D2, while eight players compete in Georgia’s Didi 10 league.
Three other players, including their most capped stars Davit Kacharava (113) and Lasha Malaghuradze (90), play in Russia’s Professional Rugby League.
And while Lelos fans are still contemplating life without their hero Mamuka Gorgodze, who retired two years ago, Number 8 Otia Giorgadze has emerged as the heir to ‘Gorgodzilla’s’ throne.
Although it may take time to capture the imagination of fans the same way Gorgodze did, Giorgadze has buckets of potential and time on the grand stage will only help his development and leadership going forward.
The Georgians are a work in progress, and although they continue to push for Six Nations inclusion, they are an exciting team with plenty of heart and power.
Nickname: The Lelos
Head coach: Milton Haig
Captain: Merab Sharikadze
Most caps: Merab Kvirikashvili (115)
Top scorer: Merab Kvirikashvili (838)
Top try scorer: Mamuka Gorgodze (26)
Home stadium: Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, Tbilisi
Key Player: Otia Giorgadze. The 23-year-old Tbilisi man is a fearless ball carrier and solid in the tackle, and will be key to the Georgian’s prospects in Japan later this year.
Best result: Pool stages (2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Wales (September 23), Uruguay (September 29), Fiji (October 3), Australia (October 11)
DID YOU KNOW?
It costs just one pound (Dhs 4) to get into a rugby game in Georgia and the stadiums are sold-out regularly.
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