Thursday 14 December 2017

'Georgia is ready for the Six Nations, just tell us what we have to do'

Georgia is a rugby-mad country CREDIT: AFP
Georgia is a rugby-mad country CREDIT: AFP

Daniel Schofield

Georgians like to think that rugby reflects their national characteristics: hard, uncompromising and resourceful.

As the son of a former national team captain who became the first Georgian player to play abroad professionally, Worcester prop Val Rapava Ruskin was taught as much, but having spent most of his childhood in England it was only when he moved to Georgia as a teenager that he truly learnt those values.

From playing in the relatively luxurious surroundings of Blackheath rugby club, Ruskin was transposed to training and playing in car parks.

“It was literally on tarmac,” Ruskin tells The Daily Telegraph. What’s more, as a 14 year-old he was thrust straight into the men’s Georgian Premiership.

“It is not the easiest league to play when you are 14,” Ruskin said. “You get bounced around on the field very easily, but after a couple of years you start doing the same to your opponents. It is a very brutal upbringing but it serves you well.

“It creates this incredibly tight bond between the players. That’s why Georgians love rugby. The Georgian economy has never been very strong, everyone has to rely upon each other. You can almost compare it to the Pacific Islander culture. You live with fear but you overcome that by relying upon the person next to you.”

That stoic character is needed now more than ever. Georgia entertain Germany in Tbilisi on Sunday in the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship, a tournament they have won for six consecutive years. It is a competition they have simply out-grown.

Their argument for admission to an expanded Six Nations – or at least having the opportunity to prove themselves in a play-off – is compelling.

Tellingly, they have been ranked above Italy, who have conceded 96 points in their past two Six Nations matches, in World Rugby’s standings for the best part of 12 months.

Thus far, it has fallen on ears that are less hard of hearing than purposefully wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

“It is not the job of the Six Nations to provide solutions for Georgia or anyone else,” John Feehan, the Six Nations chief executive, said.

Georgian officials accept relying upon any sense of meritocracy or fairness is a futile strategy. Instead they must make the argument upon the Six Nations’ terms.

“I absolutely understand his position,” Milton Haig, the Georgia head coach, said. “It is a business decision and he has to consider whether bringing Georgia into an expanded Six Nations would add value to the current competition.”

That is exactly what Georgia are intent on proving. For Haig, who signed a new contract after achieving automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup, that means continuing to demonstrate their competitiveness. Last year they beat Fiji and Tonga, as well as drawing with Samoa, in their tour of the Pacific Islands.

In their sole fixture against tier-one opposition, Georgia lost 43-16 to Scotland.

“That first half showed the difference between a tier-one country coming off very tough games (Australia and Argentina) and a tier-two country coming off the back of playing Japan and Samoa,” Haig said. “That’s no disrespect to Japan or Samoa but the reality is the speed of the game is so much quicker at tier-one level. You simply need more games against that level of opposition.”

Haig estimates that there are around 150 Georgian props playing professional or semi-professional rugby in France. That there are now Georgian props such as Ruskin, who is English qualified, and Vakh Abdaladze, who represented Ireland Under-20s last summer, hoping to play for other countries is seen as a compliment rather than a threat.

“Those guys made their intentions pretty clear and we would support them with all our hearts if a Georgian played for England or Ireland.”

Aside from the results, a bulk of the responsibility for putting forward Georgia’s case falls to George Nijaradze, the country’s representative on the World Rugby council.

It helps that the sport is funded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s former Prime Minister who has an estimated worth of £4 billion. The facilities are now on a par with what you would find in New Zealand, according to Haig.

“It is the old adage of if they build it, they will come,” he says.

Georgia already attract full houses of 55,000 for the visit of Russia and Nijaradze guarantees that would be the case for every Six Nations game. The Daily Telegraph can reveal that there are already advanced talks about Scotland becoming the first tier-one nation to visit Tbilisi.

“They showed willingness even though they have a very busy schedule,” Nijaradze said. “We are hopeful of finding an opportunity of hosting Scotland and that will be a great honour for us.”

This summer, Georgia will host the Under-20 World Championships which will be seen as another key staging post. Tbilisi already attracts more than six million tourists a year and Nijaradze has no doubts that it would be a hit with the travelling supporters.

“Tbilisi is a beautiful city with many of the oldest cultures in the world,” Nijaradze said. “The supporters from England, Ireland, France, Scotland, Wales and Italy will come and enjoy the rugby, enjoy the city and enjoy the wine from the oldest wine-making country in the world.”

Ultimately, Nijaradze just wants to know what more Georgia have to do to prove they are ready.

“I can promise you 55,000 spectators for each game,” he added. “Then, together with the management of the Six Nations, we can build up the commercial arm. We have the full support of the government and the private sector as well. The question is: tell us what we have to do? What do we need to bring to the negotiating table? Tell us and we will do it. The country is ready for it. Not just rugby, but the whole country because it is the national sport.”

This is not solely an argument about Georgia’s inclusion but the direction that rugby as a whole wants to take: whether it is content to stick with the status quo or make a genuine attempt to grow the sport by opening doors rather than shutting them.

“If we people talk about rugby’s values then we cannot have double standards,” Nijaradze said. “You cannot run rugby like a VIP club and then talk of fairness and values.”

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