Wales Online about the rise of rugby in Georgia - “where players bleed for their country”
21 November, 2017
Wales Online about the rise of rugby in Georgia - “where players bleed for their country”
Wales Online, the famous British website for news, sport, business and entertainment, publishes the article about the remarkable rising of Georgian rugby. Rugby union in Georgia is a popular team sport. Rugby is considered the second most popular sport in Georgia, after association football.

The popularity of rugby union largely took off after the Georgia Rugby Union's inception into the IRB (International Rugby Board ).

According to the article, 20 years ago, Georgia owned two rugby balls and used Soviet-era
tractors to practice scrums, but nowadays the situation in this field is getting better day by day.

“Now they're the fastest-growing force in world rugby. The former Soviet state has been a growing force in the sport over the past decade and they are now pushing hard for inclusion in the Six Nations” – the article reads.

Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas investigates why Georgia now has rugby very much on its mind:

Lelo Burti and the birth of modern Georgian rugby

Well, it goes way, way back to pagan times and a folk sport called lelo or Lelo Burti, which translates as Field Ball. Village vied with village on a playing area selected between two river creeks, with the local priest acting as the referee.

They played with a large, heavy ball - weighing about seven kilos - which symbolized the Sun, with the priest blessing it before throwing it up to the teams.

The aim of what was a full-contact, no-holds barred game was to carry the ball to a pre-marked place, the Lelo.
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In Georgia, a try in rugby is still called a Lelo, with the national team nicknamed The Lelos.

A version of the original game is still played on occasions in rural areas and it remains engrained in the country’s sporting folklore, as Cardiff Blues’ Georgian prop Anton Peikrishvili confirms.

“Each village would try to take the ball back to their own village. There was fighting and all kinds of things,” he said.

“It looks like rugby, but there are no rules!”

But how that game from ancient times developed into a passion for the modern sport of rugby is a different story altogether - and one with a number of interpretations.

There’s the tale of the crew of a British cargo ship joining Lelo players for a game in the port of Batumi in the 1890s and impressing with their rugby skills and then of dockers playing the game in the Black Sea port of Poti in the 1920s.

Move on to the 1930s and ‘40s and you have a Russian influence involved, with students taking up the sport having seen it being played in Moscow.

But it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s that rugby really started to gain a foothold thanks to the work of Jacques Haspekian, an Armenian from Marseilles in the south of France who taught the game to students, with the first clubs being formed.
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Rugby has steadily grown in popularity with the Georgian public in recent years

The Georgian Rugby Union was founded in 1964, with teams playing in the Soviet Championship, and clubs like Dinamo Tbilisi, Locomotivi and Kutaisi developing into major forces, while there were regularly six or seven Georgian players in the USSR side.

But then in the early 1990s came the break-up of the Soviet Union which initially set the game back in the country, and sent the sport in Georgia into a cycle of decline.

Newly independent Georgia were initially rejected for membership of the IRB before eventually being admitted and it’s fair to say resources were limited in the early years.

When Kiwi Ross Meurant became coach of the national team in the mid 1990s, the story goes they only had two practice balls, while tackle bags were home-made creations, stitched together from denim and stuffed with rubber.

Faced with such challenges, competing on the international stage was difficult and there was to be disappointment as defeats to Romania and Tonga saw Georgia miss out on the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Wales.

From bust to boom - how Georgian rugby rebuilt itself

Much of the credit for the rebirth of Georgian rugby goes to one man: Claude Saurel.

The Frenchman was appointed head coach of the national team in 1999 and proceeded to change the face of rugby in the country.

How did the former Beziers flanker do it? Let Anton Peikrishvili provide the explanation.

“Through his contacts, he arranged for a lot of our better players to play club rugby in France,” said the Blues prop.

“Every player that went improved and that strengthened the national team.”

Results started to follow, with Georgia winning the European Nations Cup for the first time in 2001 and qualifying for their first World Cup two years later.
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Georgian fly-half Merab Kvirikashvili puts in a kick during the 2011 World Cup match against Scotland in Invercargill

They have gone on to dominate the Nations Cup - the Six Nations B tournament - winning it six seasons in a row up until this year when they lost out on points difference to Romania.

They’ve also competed in the last four World Cups, claiming victories over Namibia and Romania in the finals of 2007 and 2011 respectively.

Then in 2015, they defeated both Tonga and Namibia to finish third in their group and automatically qualify for 2019 tournament in Japan.

At present, they lie 12th in the World Rugby rankings, ahead of the likes of Italy, Tonga, Samoa and the USA.

Much of the funding that supports Georgia's continued rugby development comes from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The nation's former prime minister lives in a steel and glass palace - complete with its own shark tank - on the southern Tbilisi hillside.

He has a reported $1billion art collection, not to mention a flock of peacocks, penguins and zebras!

Having made his fortune in metals, banking, hotels and drugstores, he ran successfully for the post of prime minister, which he held for just over a year.

Now he is throwing his financial weight behind Georgian rugby, playing a significant role in its growth, building no fewer than 12 training bases.

Where rugby fits into society in 21st century Georgia

When The Lelos hosted Russia in March of this year, a sell-out crowd of 55,000 turned out at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena 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, as the 24-cap Peikrishvili confirms.

“The people love rugby back home. It is the number one sport in the country,” he said.
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Geogian fans in Cardiff during the 2015 World Cup

“It’s getting bigger and bigger because of the results of the national team. Everyone loves rugby because it’s the first sport in Georgia to have success. We love wrestling too and football, but they don’t have the same success.

“People love it when you win. We have crowds of over 50,000 for matches. It is unbelievable.

“We started a couple of years ago to be really professional and we have some good sponsors who are paying for a lot of things for us. You have more money, you have good coaches and nice facilities.”

Georgia’s head coach Milton Haig says he has seen interest in the game increase steadily during his six years at the helm.

“The enthusiasm for the game from the public has gone up massively in the time I have been there,” said the New Zealander.

“The more games you win, the more popularity you have, the more its covered on TV. Now it’s the most popular game in the country.
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“Football is still the most participated, but certainly popularity-wise rugby is streets above everybody else.

“This rugby team started out with nothing and now the windows shake every time we play.

“We have been lucky that Bidzina Ivanishvili has been the benefactor of rugby and he continues to build the infrastructure for us and that’s why we have been able to progress as fast as we have.

“We’ve got more and more kids getting into the game and watching our 14, 15 and 16-year olds, it is scary. It is like watching the All Blacks coming through.”

The majority of players and clubs are based in the capital of Tblisi, which has by far the biggest population at 1.1m.

There are also Academies in Batumi and Kutaisi, but the population is much lower in those two cities, less than 200,000.

The sport isn’t generally played in schools, but there are a large number of clubs, which is where youngsters take up the sport.
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Georgian legend Mamuka Gorgodze

Whereas No 10 is the most revered position in Welsh rugby, it’s the forwards who tend to be the heroes in Georgia, with the game being heavily based on set-piece power.

Back rower Mamuka Gorgodze has been the star man of recent times, while there have been a string of prop idols including Montpellier’s Davit Kubriashvili.

'The players are soldiers'

Haig has been at the helm of the national team since 2011 and has been thoroughly impressed with the work ethic of the players he's encountered.

“They are soldiers,” said the man from Invercargill.

“Whatever you tell them to do, they just go out and do it, 100 per cent.

“They are probably the hardest working group I’ve ever coached and all for the right reasons.
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Georgia's Kiwi coach Milton Haig

“It’s not about money for them or the match fee. Mate, these guys would do it for nothing because playing for their country is the most important thing in the world for them. Our guys bleed for Georgia.

“It’s a pretty cool atmosphere to be coaching in, with the camaraderie in the group.

“So, yes, they are absolute soldiers, they are fighters. They have been defending their country for centuries against all sorts of invaders.

“They are used to that combat. I think that’s why they like rugby because it’s controlled combat. It takes them back to their ancestors. These guys are warriors.”

Around 60% of the Georgian international squad play their professional rugby in France and 40% of them based in Georgia. The home-based contingent are largely semi-pro, as Haig outlines.

“Some of them have jobs, most of them are students,” he said.

“There’s not a lot of money in club rugby in Georgia compared to Europe.
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Georgia have been training at the Arms Park ahead of taking on Wales

“But the good thing about it is most of them are backs and they train with us every week.

“So we can control what they are doing and look at their skill sets.”

The average age of the starting XV to face Wales will be about 23, but there will still be a fair amount of experience on duty caps-wise.

There has been a growing clamour for their achievements to be recognised with a spot in the Six Nations, either as an additional side in an expanded tournament or in place of strugglers Italy via a promotion/relegation play-off.

They have certainly made a pretty strong case in rugby terms.

In addition to dominating the European Nations Cup for the best part of a decade, they have also recorded victories over Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Japan, USA, Canada, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Uruguay.

They are very serious in their bid for a Six Nations spot, which is being backed by billionaire ex-PM Ivanishvili.

They are reportedly ready to pay £8.5m a year from a variety of sources to take a place among the European elite.

“The Six Nations is what we need,” said Haig.

“We have talked about it for three years, it is what we need to improve our game.
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Milton Haig gets his point across in training

“But also geographically, it is the place we naturally fit. So we are just hoping we get that opportunity one day.

“We would love the chance. We understand we need to keep putting runs on the board to gain that credibility, but if we get the opportunity, we will take it with both hands.

“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.”
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Experienced forward Giorgi Nemsadze pictured during training at the Arms Park

“We played the All Blacks in Cardiff in the 2015 World Cup, but to come back to play Wales, an iconic team in an iconic stadium, we are pretty rapt. The boys have been talking about it for a long time.

“These are the occasions that help us improve. The more often we have them, the better we get, it’s as simple as that.
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Georgia in action against the All Blacks in Cardiff during the 2015 Rugby World Cup

“If you look at the likes of Argentina 10-15 years ago, we kind of think that’s us.

“What we are looking for is an opportunity to grow our game and play better Test matches consistently.

“To do that, we have to make sure we get credibility in our performance. That is going to be really key for us.

“We have got to believe we can win. Otherwise we are just turning up to make up the numbers.

“As I keep telling them, they are up against 15 men, with two arms and two legs and they go down just like anybody else if you tackle them.”

As a reminder, unfortunately Georgian rugby squad was beaten by Wales 6-13 at a tense Principality Stadium on November 18.

Georgia head coach Milton Haig said: "We would have got over from that scrum, absolutely. And from what happened I think they (Wales) were pretty confident about that and that's why they went for uncontested scrums. We would have backed ourselves there.

"There's perhaps a need to look at how those situations are officiated. We would have liked that scrum at the end of the game, that's for sure."

Haig said that they did not intend to seek action over Wales' claim that they could not field a prop at the end.

Related stories:

Leloburti – A Georgian Ancestor of Rugby

Rugby without rules - Ancient tradition of Leloburti in Georgia


A big game of tough gentlemen: Georgian rugby team beats Russia

Legendary Georgian rugby player Mamuka Gorgodze leaves the National Team
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