Underdogs Georgia celebrate their greatest triumph
Arms flew into the air. Grown men sank to their knees. The sizeable Georgian contingent in the crowd waved flags and shook this old ground to its foundations. This, right here: this was Georgia’s World Cup, and as the final whistle blew on the greatest triumph in their rugby history, they celebrated fittingly.
The Georgian coach, a genial, straight-talking Kiwi called Milton Haig, described the atmosphere as “like playing in Tbilisi”. And this is a win that could yet have far-reaching consequences for the sporting fate of this small country at the intersection of Europe and Asia: a country where rugby is beginning to rival football as the country’s biggest sport.
More pressingly, Georgia can now dream. They return here on Friday to face Argentina, to a venue and a town that has already taken them to their hearts. Many of the locals here have adopted one of these two teams during this tournament, and for this game, Kingsholm – one of this World Cup’s few proper rugby grounds amid a slew of refashioned soccer-domes – was a sea of red and white, a ground divided in loyalty but united in noise.
Ultimately, it was the Georgians – a coalition of West Country Georgians and actual Georgians – who ended up shouting the loudest.
On a balmy afternoon, a lacklustre Tonga were startled by a marvellously resolute underdog performance, in which Georgia supplemented their traditional strengths – a ferocious pack and a simple, unfussy style of play – with impressive discipline and outstanding, relentless defence from No 1 to No 15.
At times they flouted the rules with abandon – the veteran full back Merab Kvirikashvili finished the game in the sin bin after referee Nigel Owens eventually lost patience with his persistent offside play. “How many times have I refereed you?” an exasperated Owens said at one point. “And you still can’t understand me?” But Georgia are a team that no side will relish facing.
There were heroes all over the pitch: captain Mamuka Gorgodze ran the show from No 8, and scored a crucial, momentum-shifting try in the first half. Davit Zirakashvili, a former wrestler, was the pick of the Georgian front row, dominating the scrummage and destroying the Tongan line-out.
Perhaps the most impressive performer of all was the scrum half Vasil Lobzhanidze, at 18 the youngest player in World Cup history. You would scarcely have known his age from this assured display: safe hands, a quick and wrong-footing turn of pace, a game played almost entirely on the off-beats.
By contrast, Tonga were curiously undisciplined, and indeed all week have affected the air of a team who at times may be a little too laid-back for their own good. On Friday they chuckled about taking time out to see the sights of Gloucestershire and multiple visits to Nando’s. After the match, Haig revealed that at the final whistle he spoke to one of the Tongan players, who admitted that “maybe they were focusing on other games rather than us”.
Tonga did not have Georgia on their minds, and it cost them dearly. They had the openings and the possession – 156 ball-carries to Georgia’s 56 – but too often made silly errors at crucial moments. And, to be fair, they were a little unlucky, too – twice they had tries ruled out for minor infringements – but their equation is now stark. They must now win their next two games against Argentina and Namibia to have a hope of progress.
Though they took the lead through an early penalty, not until the second half did they begin to find any sort of rhythm. Georgia’s first sustained incursion into opposition territory ended with a score for Gorgodze under the posts, and they led 10-3 at half-time. On 57 minutes, a break from Kvirikashvili down the right saw the ball eventually worked out to the left with numbers. The game opened up for Giorgi Tkhilaishvili, who evaded two tackles and dived over in the left corner.
Georgia led 17-3 and the match appeared to be within their grasp. With an hour gone, they recycled their entire front row: they may be one of international rugby’s minnows, but props are one area in which they do not lack for numbers. Fetu’u Vainikolo went over in the corner to offer Tonga hope – and become his country’s leading international try-scorer – but Georgia delved into their reserves of strength, stamina and skill to hold firm.
How had they done it? “A lot of bloody hard work,” Haig said afterwards, but he also paid tribute to the noise and colour of Kingsholm. Georgia will certainly not be the last under-
dog at this tournament to be inspired to gargantuan feats by the sheer fervour of the occasion, the packed stadiums, the underdog roar. And even if World Cups are mostly about the big teams, the big prizes and the big occasions, surely they are about days like this too.
Sheer power: Georgia’s flanker Giorgi Tkhilaishvili breaks through to score