Billionaire ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili funding Georgia's Six Nations bid – Daily Mail
20 February, 2017
Billionaire ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili funding Georgia's Six Nations bid – Daily Mail
There is a steel and glass palace — complete with its own shark tank — on the southern Tbilisi hillside that looks like the primary residence of a James Bond villain , the Daily Mail reports.

Truckloads of sea salt arrive to maintain the private aquarium, and alongside a $1billion art collection, the owner has a flock of peacocks, penguins and zebras.
'There are eight different types of peacock,' he claims. 'I have them all.'

For years, no one knew what the mystery resident looked like, although he was known to make big donations to theatres, churches and the Georgian rugby team.
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In 2011, he revealed his identity — Bidzina Ivanishvili — and successfully ran for Prime Minister. He has negotiated with Barack Obama and David Cameron and now the self-made billionaire is funding Georgia's campaign to join the Six Nations.

Georgia are ranked above Italy in the World Rugby standings but the elitist Six Nations committee continue to scoff at suggestions of a new contender. The competition is locked down but the ex-Soviet nation have the key.

'We'd like to invite John Feehan, the CEO, or any of the Six Nations committee to Georgia,' head coach Milton Haig told Sportsmail. 'None of us have ever spoken to him. Is it about adding value on the rugby field or adding financial value? We can do both.

'Tell us what the cost is. If it's €10 million a year, tell us. At least then we can say, 'we're in, here's €10m' or 'we're out'. I'm pretty sure we'd find that figure.'

Ivanishvili grew up in a poor family in a Georgian village. He walked across three miles of frozen fields to secondary school and began his career sweeping factory floors. He remains intensely private — his albino son Bera, who has rapped with Snoop Dogg, is less reclusive — but Bidzina is often in the 55,000-crowd to watch the Lelos.

Worth $800m more than Donald Trump, he has built 12 training bases and the national side have won every Six Nations 'B' tournament since 2011. There is a dedicated rugby channel and Mamuka Gorgodze, the captain, is pictured on every bus in Tbilisi.

It is time for the blazers to open their eyes.
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'This rugby team started out with nothing and now the windows shake every time we play,' said Haig. 'People sold their belongings to keep the clubs going because they were the focus of the community during the war. Our guys
bleed for Georgia.

'When I started in 2011, the local jersey sponsors were paying $10,000. Now it's $300,000. There are only two countries in the world where rugby is the national game: New Zealand and Wales. Georgia isn't far behind. It's time to open the doors.

'If people feel threatened, what happens? It's, 'Right boys, circle the wagons. Don't let anybody in'. Give us a chance. If we're not competitive after two or three years and we're getting spanked by 40 points every time, which I'm sure we won't be, we'll be the first to say, 'Sorry about that guys, we'll crawl back into our hole'.

Unusually in the modern game, the Georgia national team is made up entirely of native players and the youth team is also thriving. They are hosting the Under 20 World Cup this summer and coach Lado Kilasonia wants the new generation to write the next chapter in the country's rugby history that dates back to the Stalin era.

'In the 1920s a French double agent was sent to the Soviet Union and taught some of the guys about rugby,' said Kilasonia. 'When the repressions came, some of the rugby guys were sent to prison. They say it was because Stalin did not like Winston Churchill so he did not like rugby, either.

'The only picture of the rugby team disappeared. In the 1990s we played on concrete and had no discipline because our players were scarred by war. They had been shot or stabbed.

'In 2001 we had the team staying in two rooms in a building that had been destroyed. There was no heat or water, just three blankets between 23 men. But we beat Russia and we grow every year.'

Now Sportsmail can reveal that there are discussions to form a Georgian franchise. The union are looking to compete in high-level club competitions and are keen to follow the model of Argentina, who reached the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.

'We've had discussions with the Pro12 and Super Rugby,' revealed Haig. 'The door is usually more open with the southern hemisphere, maybe they feel more of a responsibility to drive the global game. Our ideal is to have a fully contracted team.'

Many of Georgia's players began their sporting journey in Tbilisi's wrestling clubs. They pride themselves on tradition — drinking local wine after every match and recently changing the colour of the jersey to represent the country's red grapes.

The city's architecture is shaped by invasions from Persians, Russians, the Ottoman Empire and Arabs, as well as the post-Soviet government. There is a booming hotel industry and friendly locals are willing to help out if, as Sportsmail discovered, the 1am airport transfer breaks down in the -8°C chill.

The city is tailor-made for a Test weekend and the blazer brigade must bring Georgia in from the cold. Promotion and relegation is essential to open up the private members' club, allowing free-market competition from the once communist union.

'Rugby's in Georgia's psyche,' said Haig. 'These guys are warriors. They've been farmers who have had to defend their land from invasions for thousands of years. Our scrum-half, Giorgi Begadze, was fighting the Russians in South Ossetia in 2008.
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'Rugby to them is a controlled war. A war they are pretty good at winning. Old people here would never have thought Georgia could be in the Six Nations in their wildest dreams. It would be the signal that Georgia, finally, have stepped out of the shadow of big brother Russia to stand on the world stage. The little brother is ready to poke his head out and become an adult.'

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