Rowntree’s expertise can help the Lelos breakthrough
Brendan Gallagher looks at the testing Autumn series awaiting Georgia’s World Cup squad
“Emotionally the Italy game in Florence on Saturday is Georgia’s ‘big one’ this Autumn”
TEN months out from the start of the World Cup you would expect that World Rugby would somehow have arranged it that ambitious Georgia were granted at least one T1 opponent this Autumn to cut their teeth against – but, alas as we all appreciate, the self-interested world of Test rugby doesn’t work like that. Well not for those denied access to the cosy club that rules the game.
Not that the Lelos are in for an easy ride this month, far from it. Currently world ranked 13, Georgia will play Italy (14) first up followed by Samoa (16) and old World Cup rivals Tonga who have climbed to 12 in the ranking.
A competitive well-attended series of games seems likely but Georgia need and deserve more than that. They can improve only if they regularly go up against the best and learn the facts of life of elite Test rugby in perhaps taking a few beatings. Those opportunities are still rarer than hen’s teeth outside of the World Cup.
This time last year they got to play Wales in Cardiff and acquitted themselves well but that is of limited use if they can’t put the lessons learned immediately into practice against similar calibre opposition.
Emotionally the Italy game in Florence on Saturday is their ‘big one’ this Autumn despite both camps trying to play it down and suggest – rightly – that it has no real relevance in terms of who should and shouldn’t be playing in the Six Nations.
It is clearly the self-appointed Six Nations tournament itself and those who run it for their own financial means who must eventually be made to either expand it to seven teams or bring in a meaningful promotion and relegation system that sees the winner of the European Nations Cup come into the equation.
All that can only be dealt with in committee rooms as World Rugby try to impose order and drag Test rugby into the 21st century, but nonetheless there will be a huge on-field battle in Florence for bragging rights.
Georgia are frustrated at the lack of opportunities to reinforce their case and improve themselves while the likes of Sergio Parisse – who at one level feels Italy and Georgia are brothers in arms and should stick together – also makes the pointed observation that Italy have modern day victories over Ireland, Wales, Scotland (many times), France and South Africa under their belts
Taking a broad view, Italy have a rather better record than many are prepared to acknowledge and the threat of a determined Georgia might well bring out the best in Conor O’Shea’s team. There will be a satisfying edge to proceedings that’s for sure.
Georgia’s New Zealand coach Milton Haig, who has done such a good job in his seven year tenure, says: “With less than 11 months to go before the Rugby World Cup begins in Japan, this is an important stage in our over-all ‘Preparation Plan’ and a great opportunity to test ourselves against very good teams who will also compete at the RWC next year.
“This campaign will be difficult as we have a number of our more experienced players with injuries but this will be a great opportunity for those who take their place in the national squad, to show the coaches what they can do, while at the same time continue to build depth in positions.
“Having said that, we still have a core group of experienced players who understand our systems and who have performed well in the past for the national team, so I am expecting these players to step up and lead the team. There are also some young, exciting players who are playing very well for their clubs either here in Georgia or in France in this squad and we are waiting to see what they can bring to our team.”
The injury list Haig alludes to is ridiculously long but probably predictable given the physical nature of their play and the value for money and game time stalwart Georgians give to their employers overseas. It’s difficult to recall the last time the Lelos were at “full strength”.
This month they will be missing regulars Kote Mikautadze, David Kacharava, Karlen Asieshvili, Giorgi Nemsadze, Vito Kolelishvili, Koki Tkhilaishvili, Mirian Modebadze, Guga Shengelia and the ageless Merab Kvirikashvili while Haig has also been thwarted in his intention of fasttracking giant wing Sandro Svanidze into the senior team.
The large number of absentees does, however, open a door for others and for a while now observers have been commenting on Georgia’s growing strength in depth. Well here’s the opportunity to prove it.
Goergia can still name six props in their squad who are regularly starting in the Top 14 along with Toulon hooker Badri Alkhazashvili, below, and former Worcester stalwart Jaba Bregvadzen, who has now moved to the Sunwolves to play Super Rugby. And while the injury list is long there are a few returning from long term layoffs such as Bordeaux No. 8 Beka Gorgadze and Narbonne flanker Beka Bitzadze. A couple of outstanding recent graduates from the U20 team are also poised to make an impact including prop Guram Gogichashvili, only 20 but a starter for Racing in their two recent European Cup games, and fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze, just 19 who impressed at the JWC this summer. Abzhandadze, described by Haig as having an old head on young shoulders, is still playing domestically in Georgia, in the Didi 10 (top ten) League while he completes his studies but isn’t lacking for offers to play abroad. One interesting newcomer for Georgia is rangy No.8 Grigo Kerdikoshvili, 24, who has taken the scenic route into the national squad. Originally from the town of Gori, his parents were both basketball professionals and the family emigrated to the USA in 2011. Up until then a three pointer was a shot from downtown as far as Kerdikoshvili was concerned and his first exposure to rugby came when he joined up the US Air Force Academy and started to play fly-half for the Air Force side where he was also their main goalkicker.
As he bulked up, Kerdikoshvili moved into the back row and spent part of last season playing Major League Rugby for the Glendale Raptors and it was there that Haig clocked his raw talent. Georgia have an enviable record of selecting only from their own but as they progress up the ladder it might be they look to tap into the considerable Georgian diaspora around the world.
Meanwhile, working with those French-based forwards over the last two months, has been former England prop and forwards coach Graham Rowntree who must be like the proverbial pig in muck!
“I have always been impressed by Georgia’s forwards – that’s one of the main reasons I have joined,” says Rowntree. “I’ve watched them, played against them, coached against them, including at the 2011 World Cup, and they’ve got the firepower to challenge people.
“The pride of the Georgia team is that all they want to do is perform welL. Our performances need to be at a level where we can show the world that we are capable of moving up, as we push forward into a massive year for Georgia rugby.”
Rowntree adds: “They know they’ve got my excitement, experience and energy for the next year, what happens after that will take care of itself.”
Haig was delighted to tempt such an experienced campaigner as Rowntree into the Georgia fold after he finished at Harlequins in the summer. Such are Georgia’s riches in the front row it would be easy to become complacent and lazy in that area, when what you want to be doing is maximising the advantage that nature has given you.
And, of course, Rowntree will offer so much more than purely front row expertise. The entire Lelos pack will benefit from his presence while Haig himself will surely benefit from having such a knowledgeable rugby brain to bounce ideas off and to challenge his thinking.
“It has been awesome seeing Graham being introduced to the players,” says Haig. “The players are meeting him with big eyes because they’re meeting this legend of international rugby, and realising that he’s going to be coaching them.
“The thing that really impressed me when we first spoke to each other was his enthusiasm about being part of the Georgia coaching team. It struck me that he genuinely wants to help us be better. I knew he was the right guy for us.”
So an interesting time awaits for Georgia. Qualifying automatically for RWC2019 has been an advantage in many ways, allowing Haig the luxury of thinking long term while it has also meant he can allow those with long term injuries to recover at a more leisurely rate. But it’s had its downsides as well. Take the European Nations Cup for example
That competition is normally a cornerstone to Georgia’s season – five guaranteed competitive fixtures every year in the February-March slot – but for the last two years it was rendered virtually meaningless for the Lelos because it doubled up as the World Cup qualifying tournament for Europe. As Georgia were prequalified their matches were struck out of the World Cup reckoning meaning that other teams largely fielded second teams against them, preserving their top players for World Cup matches.
Come this summer, again being denied T1 fixtures, they took themselves off to the Pacific Islands for the second time in three years, chasing the most competitive games they could find.
They also stopped off in Japan on the way home. It’s been far from ideal but as the Georgian expression goes ‘who has ever picked a rose without thorns’. No gain without pain.
“They know they’ve got my excitement, experience and energy for the next year” - Rowntree
Coach: Milton Haig
Expert tuition: Graham Rowntree, below, is working with the Georgian forwards