Friday, December 9, 2011

Georgia set the example on how to go from Tier Three to Tier Two

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is leading the way for rugby´s developing sides. The country has competed in three consecutive Rugby World Cup´s and has improved every time to the extent that the side is not only no longer a Tier Three team but can defeat Tier Two rivals and seriously take it to Tier One opposition. The eight years of rugby since the Lelos made their debut on the biggest stage has shown what is possible when players are exposed to regular rugby at a higher level at both club and international level. Of Georgia´s 30 man squad that competed in this years World Cup, 23 play their rugby in France. The majority play in France´s lower divisions but nine play in the Top 14 Orange such as Mamuka Gorgodze, Goderdzi Shvelidze and Davit Zirakashvili. This is not slowing down either as the young Vasil Kakovin who is currently at Brive looms as a real superstar as he has the ability of competing well at the breakdown as well as being a solid scrumager. The likes of Racing Métro, Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont are reported to be all interested in signing him. In total there are currently over sixty Georgian´s playing in France this season with twelve of them playing in the Top 14. Romania in contrast has three, Italy five and Canada just one (Jamie Cudmore).
While at the international level Georgia´s participation in the European Nations Cup (ENC or Six Nations B) has meant the Lelos have had annual matches against sides with Rugby World Cup experience including Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain. The tournament has enabled the Lelos to test a diverse group of players and test them under appropriate conditions. Georgia has been able to field experimental sides against the likes of Germany and Ukraine while fielding stonger sides against other opposition. This has worked well with Georgia having been the best team in the ENC regularly since Rugby World Cup 2007 and having won every match except for one, a 20-20 draw vs Portugal in February 2009. The problem facing Georgia has been securing additional matches as visiting teams are indeed a rare thing which is illustrated by the fact the Georgia´s last international home defeat was in 2004 vs Portugal. More recently, however, this has started to change with Los Jaguares (Argentina) A visiting in 2009 and both Canada and the USA visiting in 2010. Georgia won all three matches to underline its progression.

What Georgia has is, in other words, an ideal set up for a Second Tier side trying to stabalize itself and move forward to being able to compete with the First Tier. Similar things could work out well if applied in other places as Georgia has progressed significantly despite not having a domsetic professional structure. Like Argentina, it has been the exposure of players to professional leagues in Western Europe that has made the biggest difference. The difference between Argentina and Georgia has decreased significantly but today Georgia is closer to the level of Italy than it is to the level of Spain. Canada and the USA could both progress in a similar way as despite both having far better rugby facilities at home the sides continue to not be able to defeat the teams that make up the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship. Both teams have their share of quality players distributed in professional clubs in England, France, Japan, Scotland and Wales but, despite half their first XV´s being professional, the majoirty are amateurs based in north America. The USA´s side that faced Ireland far more professional in its make up than the one that faced Australia and the USA Eagles were far more competitive.
Georgia debuted in Rugby World Cup 2003 taking on England, Samoa, South Africa and Uruguay. The Eastern Europeans were winless and were not expected to be able to seriously challenge three of the four opponents. The Lelos´ first match was in Perth vs England with the eventual 2003 Champions running riot inwinning the contest 84-6. Four days latter Samoa completed a 46-9 victory and the writting was on the wall. Georgia, however, took on South Africa in a highly physical match and despite losing 46-19 the Europeans had left their mark on the tournament as the Springboks were unable to play to their usual standards as Georgia proved to be superior to what expectations had been suggesting. Georgia then faced Uruguay and with the passion of the South Americans proving decisive as Los Teros won 24-12.

Four years latter Georgia had an even tougher group as they faced Argentina, Ireland, Namibia and France. The clash vs the African side was seen as the only winnable match while the three others were talks of as being nothing less than training for the First Tier sides. Georgia held Argentina tryless in the first half before Los Pumas scored four second half tries to win comfortably. Four days latter, Georgia almost did the impossible as they were actually defeating Ireland and came very close to winning the match as they went down 14-10. The Lelos then proved far too good for Namibia in winning 30-0 before going down by a big score against the French in Marseilles four days latter. The result vs Ireland has been a wake up call to the emerald isle but it had also shown how far Georgia had been able to come in just a four year period. In 2011 the Lelos did even better despite being drawn in the Pool of Death like in 2007. Georgia faced Scotland, England, Romania and Argentina. The extent of the Georgian´s progress could be seen in the lack of tries conceeded as Scotland and Romania both failed to score any while Argentina had to rally late to score three tires but were unable to claim a bonus point. England´s late rally saw them score six but, remarkably, this was half the number that England scored vs Georgia at Rugby World Cup 2003.

Such utter onfield improvements have taken place despite Georgia having no domestic rugby infrastructure of note. What does exist in the country is certainly significantly inferior to Tier Two sides such as Canada, Japan, Romania and the USA. The manner in which Georgia has developed is a path that others should pursue as the exposure to top level rugby or even French fourth of Fifth division rugby has proven to create a far better Georgian side than was imaninable eight years ago. Georgia´s ability to seriously compete with anybody in the forwards has seen the Lelos replace Romania as Europeans next best side behind the Six Nations and has asked the question of whether Georgia can take further steps forward to become a Tier One side. The next four years will help answer this question and with a little luck and a friendly draw Georgia may well not only pick up two pool match victories in England 2015 but even make a challenge for a Quarter Final spot.

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