Rowntree’s ex­per­tise can help the Le­los break­through

Bren­dan Gallagher looks at the test­ing Au­tumn se­ries await­ing Ge­or­gia’s World Cup squad

The Rugby Paper - - Feature -

“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

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Ex­pert tu­ition: Gra­ham Rowntree, below, is work­ing with the Ge­or­gian for­wards

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