Rugby in Georgia

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Georgian Rugby Union http://www.rugby.ge/

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Zibzibadze Tedo - International Captain

Midnight Mane to Georgia

There was an unexpected feeling of familiarity as the beard, Jodie and I crossed the border from Turkey to Georgia. The soft curves of the Muslim mosques and the ladylike glasses of “çay” were instantly replaced by the angular lines of Christian crosses and turrets of castles. Perhaps the flags too, on the licence plates of gleaming BMWs, reminded us of home. No flag could bare closer resemblance to the St George cross but maybe it was just the nature of our Georgian border town, Batumi, purposefully equipped to cater to all manner of tourists. All these things contributed, but there was something more. I am not a botanist (although I’ve been called much worse) and I had sworn never to discuss anything with leaves on this trip. If I hadn’t promised as such, I’d say that even the foliage of the Georgian terrain would sit satisfactorily in our own domestic countryside. It was an odd experience to cycle the first 25km, and we tried to place exactly where this feeling had arisen from, then we turned a corner and it all became clear. Above the highway was a gigantic electric billboard, and on it, the answer to my question. The big man was in town, the “daddy” of British soft rock. A man who doesn’t pay the ferryman until he gets to the other side, it was Chris De Burgh, in Butumi for one night only! My birthday was fast approaching, but sadly we’d be in Tblisi, on the other side of Georgia, by the time he arrived. I daren’t suggest it.

Having grown up on a diet of Enya, Acker Bilk and “the Burgh” as a child, I have to take my hat off to the man. Despite being a poor man’s Phil Collins, he’s bashed out 100s of songs over the last 4 decades and is still proudly clinging on to the fame of his 1986 classic. Nevertheless, he can’t be forgiven for the carnage he has caused amongst the Georgian people. In recent days on our travels, we have seen 1000s of drivers risking life and limb in treacherous manoeuvres, presumably just to reach the ticket booths in time. We expect that once the concert is finished that normality will resume, and people will go back to using seatbelts and the correct side of the road to drive on.

In truth, Georgia is a fascinating country, and as always, the media portrayal is wildly inaccurate. Economically we were aware that it would be perhaps the poorest on our current journey, but overlooking a lack of surplus cash, you will find richness in their culture and history. On our travels we have slept, drank and eaten with locals, and on every step of the journey been offered hospitality of the highest levels. Straying off the main road one night, we searched for a quieter spot to find sleep, heading for the cross towering over the surrounding village. Here we found a beautiful old church, and a relatively quiet spot to sit and rest. We whistled away the token 30 seconds peace that normally presides before shuffling children find their way to your feet. At which point, we relive scenes from the Matrix, where dozens more leap from roofs, fall from windows and emerge from the cracks in walls. “Word of mouth” in Georgian villages is still officially faster than a mobile text message. Luckily for us, as our Georgian is understandably limited, the standard of English here is surprisingly high. Although not spoken by all, there is regularly someone nearby who has studied or worked in the capital, and as a result can communicate very competently. At this particular village, we were housed and fed by our English speaking host, a 17 year old student, introducing himself as “Wayne”, we could have been back home. Vano (his Georgian name) explained that the church was from the 4th century and hasn’t been touched since the 7th century. They opened the church for our private tour, and as we lit our candles, I wondered just how many English people been here, as I secretly prayed for Chris De Burgh tickets.

We arrived in Tbilsi with a genuine feeling of satisfaction. We had managed to power through 550km of wind, hills and 35 degree heat in just 4 days, achieving our target and arriving on schedule. It had been a fantastic experience and we already knew our stay was going to be to brief. Nevertheless we got straight to our jobs, Azerbaijan visa in the passport, rugby union meeting scheduled, and then at the last moment a film session for the Georgian national television too.

Georgian rugby is particularly strong, and with a population of around only 4 million, most of whom play football, the success of the national team owes largely to the pride of the Georgian people, and an ancient tradition of a game called Lelo. Lelo is a game similar to that played in many countries before the days of rules and any sort of structure. Lots of people, large heavy ball, and one objective. Get the ball back to your village before the other village get it back to theirs. From here, anything goes. Sometimes this was played between churches, but I assumed played in the same way. Even today the Georgians refer to a “try” as a “Lelo” and the national team have the nickname the “Lelos”.

Surprisingly the infrastructure of Georgian rugby remains beyond primitive. We met with one of the youth development coaches, a Scotsman, as he was busy cold calling around the globe for some basic equipment. National matches, particularly against Russia, see around 50,000 Georgians searching for tickets, yet the top Georgian clubs don’t have proper rugby grounds. There is still no television coverage of the domestic competition and therefore 90% of the Georgian national team ply their trade in the French top 14. Several Georgians are competing at the very highest level like Davit Zirakashvili of French champions, Clermont, and Davit Kubriashvili with Johnny Wilkinson at Toulon.

Recently, there has been an injection of finance from a Georgian business man which will see rugby grounds organised and built by the union across the country. This will have a big impact on the sport with the younger generation, and with Georgia competing in Group C with England, Romania and Scotland, there’s the chance of a scalp or 2 at the RWC 2011. Unlike previous countries through Europe, Georgia has had quite a lot of recent success. They have now qualified for 3 consecutive World Cups, reaching just one fewer finals than the All Blacks. Many of you will recall that the 1987 wasn’t a complete World Cup (omitting South Africa) and so I’d like to open the question “have Georgia been as successful as NZ at World Cups?” I’m staying out of that one.

With the Georgian captain, Tedo Zibzibadze, already on our scroll, we had achieved our Georgian objective. Georgian rugby has reached the pinnacle of amateur levels in the FIRA structure with little more than heart. With a sponsor or further financial injection, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them closing the gap on the 6 nations.

In short, the country is amazing, the girls are beautiful (click here) and the beer is cheap, very cheap. Book your flight to Tblisi now. We both wish the Georgians the best success at the world cup next year, they are fantastic people, and it’s been a pleasure to have spent our week here.

Now, onto Baku, where the Azerbaijan rugby union awaits us.

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