Georgian Rugby tries to convert its potential

Georgia are regarded as the best team outside of rugby union's top-tier Six Nations championship - and perhaps better than one of that tournament's current members. The question now is whether it is time for them to claim a seat at the top table.

Georgian Rugby tries to convert its potential

With World Rugby looking to develop rugby union globally, the sport's tier-two sides are finding themselves with more investment and ever more opportunities to break the established order. In European rugby, Georgia are regarded as the best team outside of the top-tier Six Nations championship - and perhaps better than one of that tournament's current members. The question now is whether it is time for them to claim a seat at the top table.

As the dust settles on rugby union's 2017 Six Nations, an abiding memory of a competitive tournament will surely be Italy's somewhat innovative tactics against champions England. Conner O'Shea's team exploited a loophole in the rules around rucks - the contests for possession that form with the ball on the ground after a tackle. By refusing to commit players to rucks, the Italians were able to rush up in defence and take what appeared to be offside positions - effectively surrounding their opponents.

Although the inventive tactics confused and frustrated England - the Azzurri even leading 10-5 at half time - it was ultimately in a losing cause. While many hailed the Irish coach as a bold genius, there were other observers - such as England's 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson - who thought that the game plan smacked of desperation.

For the record, Italy once again finished bottom of the Six Nations table with a points difference of -151 from their five games, all of which ended in defeat. After some brief years of promise, the Italians' progress has been stunted. Since their inclusion at the turn of the millennium they have won only 12 matches in their 17 years of competition.  

On the other side of Europe, Georgia have been dominating rugby's tier-two tournament - the Rugby Europe Championship - winning eight of the past ten reprisals. Though they finished second in the 2017 championship, following a shock final round loss against rivals Romania, they are widely recognised as the most powerful force outside the more established nations to the west.

The respective records of Italy and Georgia have inevitably generated media conversations over whether the Six Nations should continue to be a closed round-robin, expanded to seven, or augmented with relegation and promotion. At its meeting in Paris on 9th March, Rugby Europe formalised a request to be sent to tournament organiser Six Nations Limited, asking to introduce measures to expand access to the competition.

Needless to say, the addition of Georgia, a side that attract crowds of 55,000, cannot be ignored forever, even if they don't necessarily come from European rugby's supposed heartland.

Despite the popularity and development of the sport in the country, Georgian Rugby Union (GRU) head of operations Lasha Khurtsidze believes that his team ranks "somewhere in the middle" between the two championships.

"We are constantly winning this tournament [the Rugby Europe Championship] even though teams are finding ways to challenge us, still we are winning the competition," says Khurtsidze. "So, for us, it is important, if we are not part of the Six Nations, to at least have more tier-one games in order to develop our teams so we can close the gap between us and the six nations teams.

"If you look at the tier-two countries that are at the same levels as us - Japan, Fiji and Samoa - they are getting a lot more fixtures with tier-one nations. The alleged reason given is that tier-one teams prefer to play them but I don't know why. Maybe it is to do with the Pacific Islanders style of play, especially Fiji.

"We are not in an equal situation with these countries because we get less tier-one country games: outside of the world cup we have played just a few matches against Scotland and Ireland. Consequently, if we can play against tier-one teams twice a year for two or three years then we will then play a different brand of rugby."

Rugby in the former Soviet republic has come on leaps and bounds due to investment from the game's governing body, World Rugby, which reinvests 95 per cent of its revenue directly back into the sport, with a large proportion being invested into second-tier countries. Perhaps more importantly, it has received generous donations from the country's former prime minister the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who's backing that has made the profound difference in comparison to comparative tier-two nations.

"We get a similar investment to Japan and Fiji from World Rugby to which we are very grateful," says Khurtsidze. "World Rugby needs to divide up their investments into all of the developing countries and advise them how to spend the money.

"If you can get private investment then you can spend it how you want to. It is only our business what we do with our investment from [Georgian businessman and former prime minister] Bidzina Ivanishvili - without his generous investments the development of Georgian rugby would not be possible.

 Khurtsidze confirms that Ivanishvili has spent 80 million Georgian lari (US$32.6 million) on training facilities and stadiums. In addition, the 61-year-old has invested a further 30 million lari (US$12.2 million) into the GRU for further infrastructure to be completed this year.

"So in total over 130 million lari, that is around US$53 million," adds Khurtsidze. "He has built all of infrastructure in Georgian rugby, which was none existent 12 years ago: we didn't have a proper pitch or high-performance centre. Now, we have top class training facilities in all around the major cities and in the capital we have four of them. We have three natural and one artificial pitches.

"The infrastructure is coming in place but this project is far from over yet. Ivanishvili is also helping financially with the setting up of the Emerging Georgia team. He is doing a great job to which we are really grateful."

While there may be a perception that Georgia is on the outside looking in, Mark Egan, head of competition and performance at World Rugby, told SportsPro at London's World Rugby Confex 2016, that "Georgia, for us, are a priority union within the tier-two union group". It is a country, he added, that the organisation has "targeted".

What's more, Georgia are the only national team in world rugby that can boast a team that is formed exclusively of homegrown players. However, their domestic teams, who play in the top-tier Didi 10 and the second division Pirveli Liga, are limited to internal matches. Moreover, the top flight is dominated by the capital city's main team, Lelo Tbilisi.

In order to remedy those weaknesses in the club game and increase the quality of players that are being produced, there are strong calls for a Georgian franchise to be added to the Pro12, the annual league played by sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Khurtsidze argues that this is an imperative to push the sport in the country and a franchise would unquestionably improve the player levels but points out that "additional funding" will be needed.

"It [a Georgian Pro 12 team] is realistic because rugby is truly the number one sport in our country," continues Khurtsidze. "Yes, soccer is popular but rugby is truly our national sport, so we have got a large interest from the private sector. 

"A Pro 12 team is not impossible. However, it is not going to happen this year or the next but in 2019/20 it is certainly realistic. We see this as a natural development in Georgia - if we want to develop we want to set up a franchise and participate in the Pro 12.  We will have to think commercially so we might get some other players - maybe some Romanian players or Russia, who knows.

"We definitely have enough players in the country that could create a franchise for sure. It is not exclusive though, if we run a franchise we will obviously add players from other countries."

Nevertheless, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and without the backing of Six Nations chief executive John Feehan, Georgia's grand plans will be become obsolete. Feehan is keen to maintain the status quo, recently stating when asked about Georgia's inclusion: "In the short to medium term there is not any genuine likelihood of that happening."

Moreover, the Irishman - according to Khurtsidze - has "not been in touch with anyone from our organisation", despite the GRU's many attempts to talk on a formal capacity. Nonetheless, there is optimism that World Rugby's new structured, fairer global calendar will create opportunities for the Georgians.    

And, as Khurtsidze, puts it: "We are going to get there - you cannot ignore a country for an eternity. If we start beating tier one countries then they cannot ignore us."