Peter Bills: New Georgian hero keen to bottle pride
Battles have been taking place in this part of the world for centuries. From 1804 to 1813, the armies of Imperial Russia met the Persian Empire on land involving the Caucasus (in other words, modern Georgia and Armenia).
More recently, in August 2008, war erupted between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territories of south Ossetia and Abkhazia. That was a nasty little war, with Russia bombing the Georgian city of Gori, killing 60, with rape, arson, looting and abductions taking place in Georgian towns and villages. The Georgians replied by firing cluster bombs at their enemies.
Imagine, then, just over 18 months later, a rugby match between Georgia and Russia. To say emotions ran high last weekend would be to suggest the Irish taxman is a bit stretched at the moment. Emotion, passion -- such qualities ran with the fire and fervour of an erupting volcano.
"You could see it in their eyes, tell the difference in their approach before the game," said Georgian coach Tim Lane, a former Australia international.
"Even some weeks ago when we played Romania, they had their eyes on this game. It was a different feeling at training; everyone had more urgency. I just wish I could bottle the feeling within our team when we play Russia and bring it out for every game. We would be a different kettle of fish then."
Lane is a lovely, laid-back, smiling and courteous Australian. He's been assistant coach to Australia and South Africa at World Cups and now, next September, he will proudly take Georgia to the 2011 tournament in New Zealand.
He has long since come to understand the fierce pride that beats in every Georgian's chest, not least their rugby men. They may be comparative minnows in world rugby terms (although Ireland might disagree after their experiences at the hands of the Georgians in the last World Cup), yet they bring an honesty, pride and determination which will make them formidable foes.
The Russians thought they'd been ambushed last weekend. The match was played in Trabzon, just inside Turkey and two hours from the Georgian border, because of an IRB stipulation for neutral grounds following the 2008 war.
The small soccer stadium, bursting at the seams with just 6,000 inside, was a seven-hour drive from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Nevertheless, 60 buses and all kinds of other vehicles transported thousands of Georgian supporters to the Turkish town.
They crammed in like sardines, and the noise, especially from one of the stands which was no more than six or seven metres from the pitch, was incredible. The former Sale and Saracens coach Steve Diamond, a consultant to the Russians, told Lane afterwards that it was the most daunting atmosphere he had ever known at a ground anywhere in the world.
"The noise was incredible, the atmosphere highly-charged and hostile," confirmed Lane. "They whistled ferociously during the Russian anthem and roared their support for the Georgian anthem.
"Whenever we put them under pressure or actually scored, there were huge roars. I've seen a bit of rugby around the world, but I don't recall an atmosphere like that."
The rattled Russians couldn't handle it. As the Georgians began to dominate, the decibel levels increased. Georgia had a maul which probably went 20 metres, and then were given a penalty. They kicked into touch, set up another maul and scored.
The crowd went crazy: 10-5 to Georgia. Five minutes later, when one of the Georgian props ran 30 metres to score, the place exploded.
Lane went on: "We scored two more tries and conversions before half-time and led 22-5 at the break. The crowd was going nuts by this stage as the teams left the field."
Thereafter, the Georgians defended like tigers.
"There were some huge hits from guys who had previously defended like schoolboys in other matches and that sent the crowd even wilder," said Lane.
They added two more tries and finished with a thumping 36-8 win. The news quickly spread like wildfire back in Georgia and the president called the Georgian Rugby Federation president and told him he wanted to host a reception for the players.
So those members of the team who play in Top 14 cancelled their flights back to France and set off by road for Tbilisi. They were given two other receptions in towns along the way as people came out to celebrate.
"The whole country has gone crazy again," grinned Lane.
Together with a couple of the players and a fellow coach, Lane stayed in Turkey, enjoying a few drinks and listening to music.
On Sunday morning, he reported: "I'm not too well."
Never mind, he's a national hero in Georgia.