Bradley going extra mile to help Georgia reach top table
Former Irish captain eyes World Cup quarter-final with emerging 'Lelos'
It used to take Michael Bradley about three hours to get from Cork to Galway when he was in charge of Connacht but in his current position as assistant coach to Georgia, it takes over 12 hours to get to work.
But it is a job the former Irish captain and scrum-half is relishing as 'the Lelos' prepare for their fourth World Cup campaign next year.
Bradley says Sunday's clash with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium is being viewed by Georgia as a great opportunity to pit themselves against one of the top nations in the rugby world.
The Corkman was appointed following his spell in charge of Edinburgh, having worked with them previously on behalf of the IRB when he ended his seven seasons in charge of Connacht.
"We don't get the opportunity to play tier one teams outside of the World Cup that much. And from the point of view it is a very important match," he says.
"It is going to be a benchmark game. Georgia are champions of ENC1 (European Nations Cup) and Ireland are Six Nations champions. Clash of champions might be overstepping the mark a little bit but the point is you have two sides that are champions."
Georgia are in the same pool as New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Namibia at the World Cup and their calendar is not dissimilar to Ireland in terms of preparations.
They went down 23-9 to the Tongans at the weekend in Tbilisi and host Japan the weekend after next.
And when Ireland begin the defence of their Six Nations title in February, Georgia will do likewise with their ENC1 crown when they meet Germany, Portugal, arch-rivals Russia, Romania and Spain.
The crunch game, in terms of deciding the title, is likely to be against Romania but the Russian clash is always the box-office encounter as Georgia take on the country which occupied them for so long.
"There are two main stadiums that Georgia would use out there and they are both soccer stadiums. One was a national stadium and has been recently transferred to soccer," says Bradley.
"One can accommodate around 70,000. When Russia play in that stadium you would get close on 60,000.
"The likes of Romania, Tonga, Ireland if they came out, USA, Canada, Samoa all these matches are played in the other stadium which would be about 26,000 or 27,000.
"But the economics are interesting - when Georgia played Russia that time England played New Zealand around the same time and there was 82,000 in Twickenham where they were charging around £80-100 to get in to those games. And in Tbilisi it could be €2.50 to €5."
But rugby is growing in Georgia. Bradley says there are around 8,000 registered players, there is a domestic professional league with ten teams spread throughout the country.
Half of their squad is based at home, most of the other half are in France. In turn, about half of them are in the Top 14 with the others in Pro D2.
Georgia has a similar population to Ireland, just short of five million people, with around 1.4 of them in Tbilisi. Soccer is the main sport but rugby is second and growing all the time.
"Georgia is developing as a rugby playing country and also in its confidence as well,"explains Bradley.
"Before, they would have been thrilled to bits to be playing Ireland; now it is a case of saying let's see can we go and beat Ireland.
"The majority of the Georgian players would have watched Ireland perform in most of the matches, they will be very familiar with them as well. The Top 14 lads will be playing against them so there isn't really a sense of unknown."
The game may be growing in Georgia but it is starting from a low base.
"They have though a president who is a very strong character - he was a government minister at one stage. He has contacts and one of his contacts is a multi-billionaire and he has built about ten purpose-built stadiums with training pitches and facilities for the cities and towns," says Bradley.
"He has been very important; it is difficult to get a grasp of it in Ireland or Scotland or England or Wales and these places, but there are only about ten or 12 grass pitches in the whole of Georgia. So there are limiting factors as to how far they can bring the game, so it is about growing and growing out of themselves in that sense as well."
Bradley spends quite a bit time during the season with the French-based players. There is huge travel involved. He goes to Georgia for blocks of periods at a time - the November series is a block of six weeks.
"The trip takes about 12 hours but in that you have about seven hours flying. I would normally go from Cork to London and then from London to Istanbul. And from Istanbul then into Tbilisi.
"But it is enjoyable, working in a different environment and seeing how progress is measured. Sunday's game is an opportunity for us to benchmark where we are.
"In terms of profile, this match is the one that people will take an interest in outside of our circle. It is a Six Nations team so that is a big ask for us. Last year we beat Samoa in Tbilisi after Ireland had beaten them. Ireland put 40 points on them, we beat them by eight points. That is what you are looking at there.
Georgia, like every other team, are in countdown mode to the World Cup. This will be their fourth tournament. They failed to win a game in Australia in 2003 but, just four years later, they gave Ireland a big scare before losing 14-10 in Bordeaux - they went on to record their first World Cup finals win with a 30-0 trouncing of Namibia.
In 2011 Scotland stumbled 15-6 past them but 'the Lelos' got a second World Cup win with a 25-9 victory over Romania. Next year they have a chance and their clash with Argentina is the one they are sizing up most.
"The key will be to beat Tonga in our first game. Argentina are out first against New Zealand, it should be backs-to-the wall for them by the time they play us," says Bradley.
"Assuming Georgia beat Tonga, then that should be a winner-takes-all against Argentina.
"We then play New Zealand and have Namibia in our final game. There is a lot to happen in between, starting on Sunday."
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