Un­der­dogs Ge­or­gia celebrate their great­est tri­umph

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - By Jonathan Liew at King­sholm

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

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