Haig’s troops out to show their 2015 performance wasn’t a fluke
GEORGIA enjoyed a fine RWC2015 with wins over Tonga and Namibia to earn third place in their Pool which guaranteed them an automatic place in this year’s competition, but the fates have not rewarded them with the kindest of draws four years later.
This time they line up against high-flying Wales and Australia, who almost always get their act together for World Cups, while Fiji are much fancied by many to cause a shock and possibly reach the last eight – which in theory leaves the Lelos and Uruguay scrapping to avoid the bottom slot in Pool D.
Georgia beg to differ, however, even if they will have to box clever. Kiwi coach Milton Haig and his team will have studied the fixture schedule and seen immediately that their tournament pivots entirely on their middle two games, against Uruguay on September 29 and against Fiji just four days later. That’s their World Cup right there.
These are the matches the Lelos can win and should they secure a brace of victories they would, under the current guidelines at least, again qualify automatically for RWC2023.
Georgia will surely rest some key players in the opening game against Wales with damage limitation their main objective while, after playing Uruguay and the Fijians, the Lelos then enjoy the luxury of eight days rest before one last hurrah against Australia when they can field the strongest team they have left standing and play with little or no pressure.
Theoretically, Uruguay are Georgia’s ‘banker’ but they need to be wary of Los Toros because the South Americans in turn will be targeting that game above all others while the match with Fiji will present an intriguing clash in styles.
The Georgians are exactly the kind of team capable of ‘owning’ the ball for 80 minutes against the Fijians and frustrating the hell out of them. And the Lelos have gone very well indeed against Pacific Island teams recently.
As for Georgian rugby generally, although there has been no massive spike in performance since RWC2015, there has certainly been no dip or dropping off in intensity which can be a problem in the emerging nations, especially after a World Cup.
There has been a smattering of new fixtures against T1 nations – Scotland, Ireland and Wales – and, although still nowhere enough, it’s a start. A gutsy defeat against an experimental Wales XV in Cardiff was probably the high point.
Georgia have continued to dominate the second tier European Nations competition, even when fielding second fifteens to ease the workload on their French based players.
Their growing strength in depth is encouraging but what hasn’t happened yet is for a totem pole player to emerge, somebody like the now retired Mamuka Gorgodze who was so inspirational in the last three World Cups.
Their forwards are uniformly strong and competent, their front row resources second to none, and they do now have some young livewires at halfback. Brive scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze is already a veteran of one World Cup but will be challenged for his starting place by Montpellier’s Gela Aprasidze while another Brive player – Tedo Abzhandaze – has just completed his third season at fly-half with the Georgia U20 side and could well be a starter in Japan. It is wider out they still struggle, lacking the extreme pace, clever footwork and handling skills of many nations.
“We can get there but it won’t happen overnight,” says Haig, who will be helped this time round by former England assistant coach Graham Rowntree.
A tough campaign awaits but Georgia’s hunger and passion is stronger than ever.
If RWC2015 was their big breakthrough, the Lelos must now consolidate before looking to go up another level at RWC2023.
Georgia will be counting on captain Giorgi Nemsadze