Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Georgian backline hope Merab Sharikadze

imageDespite producing stocks of props playing in the Top 14 and the iconic loose forward Mamuka Gorgodze, behind the pack Georgia do not have the best of reputations. But young centre Merab Sharikadze could be the Georgian to lead the way in altering that reputation.

The speed that Sharikadze has progressed throughout his career has been utterly incredible. After first picking up a rugby ball aged 13, and soon got fast tracked at a pace through the Georgian youth system, playing for the U18's aged 16 and captaining the U19's aged 18. He was rated as such a prospect that in 2011 the Georgian Rugby Union arranged a deal for him to train, play and live in England at Hartpury College, a rugby academy that of late has produced several internationals including Wales and Lions wing Alex Cuthbert and England wing Jonny May.

He had not been in England a year before he was given a shock call to start at inside centre in coach Milton Haig's first game in charge, ahead of stalwart Tedo Zibzibadze, a big muscular centre who had been a fixture in the Georgian side since himself making his debut as a teenager in 2000.

The selection was a punt, and throwing an 18 year old in the tough position of 12 was always inevitably going to lead to some ups and shaky moments, especially when against stronger opposition outside the ENC. Sharikadze got technically exposed and big physical USA runners steamrollered him, and had mixed games against Japan and Fiji. Although there were positives to take from them, most notably against Fiji in a match where Georgia defended poorly, he personally came out with credit for improved tackling.

Despite a first year mixed with promise and mistakes, Haig showed a lot of faith in him to keep selecting him through the rough moments when he could have easily gone back to the safer option of Zibzibadze. What Haig said he saw in him was ability to read and understand the game compared to other Georgian backs, and over the course of 2013 Haig was vindicated for his faith shown in the selection.

Sharikadze developed over the year into probably Georgia's most well rounded back. He progressed so much with his defence that was a weak point early on is now a strength, with solid tackling and also work at the breakdown. This was summed up by when a 98kg Samoan came charging at him, he didn't get bumped off like Andrew Suniula did, but with textboook technique got low and drove the player backwards and halted the forward momentum to the attack. Although he doesn't look it, he is deceptively strong and this was also summed up in that big Samoa game by his try, where in tight space he brushed past 4 Samoans to score.

Given he is still only 20 years old and the hard work and rate of progress he's made, gaining popularity with fans in the process where he was voted 2nd in the Georgian Sports Personality of the Year contest, Sharikadze has the potential to not just to become a legend of Georgian rugby but also achieve a legacy. Although Georgia's forwards have widely respected reputation in Europe and are seen in teams like Toulouse, Clermont, Toulon or Montpellier, the backs don't have any reputation and there only 3 currently are currently playing professionally in France.

If Sharikadze, who refused an extension to his 1 year contract with Bourg-en-Bresse to look for a better team, could break into a top league then he could help start to change the entrenched reputation of Georgian backs. Like Lisandro Arbizu was one of the first Argentine backs to pave the way for others and gradually broaden the Pumas reputation of only props and a pack, if a player could make the breakthrough and be a success in a top league it could slowly open up a few more opportunities for more Georgians to play at a higher level in the future.

A GIF look at why Sharikadze is so highly regarded as one of the most skillful and well rounded backs Georgia have produced.

Tackling: At 6' 0", Sharikadze is hardly small, but in modern day rugby at that size he's not going to be able to get away with bad technique, as he found out against Suniula. The improvement he's made technically have been considerable, below is an illustration of these improvements.
vs Fiji (November 2012)
After missed tackles from his teammates, Sharikadze shows good work off the ball to track back and make the tackle to prevent Metuisela Talebula from scoring a try.
vs Samoa (November 2013)
With Samoa spreading quick ball wide Sharikadze stops the move and shunts back Alapati Leiua, exhibiting his improved technique and good strength.

Breakdown: As noted before Sharikadze is much stronger than he looks, and uses this to be active and useful at the breakdown.
vs Spain (March 2013)
Following a tackle by Kacharava, Sharikadze gets over the ball and jackals to win his side a penalty for holding on.
vs Emerging Ireland (June 2013)
After winning the gainline making the tackle, Sharikadze uses his upper body strength to win the turnover for his side at the ruck.

Strength: The tenacious leg drive and ability to brush off tacklers for a guy of his size is unique, and helps him beat the gainline.

vs Japan (November 2012)
Taking the ball from a restart, Sharikadze fights hard to gain 30 metres in no space whatsoever. The forward momentum from that led onto a Georgian try.

vs Uruguay (June 2013)
Sharikadze took the ball from 40 metres and use his leg drive to get past numerous Uruguay defenders before offloading to create an easy try for Zibzibadze.

Sharikadze has proven to be a dangerous player even in tight space, which combined with his ability to shrug off tackles led to his memorable try against Samoa.
vs Emerging Ireland (June 2013)
Sharikadze wrongfoots Dominic Ryan with a superb sidestep and then with no support launches a big fend to sit down Dave Kearney.
vs Samoa (November 2013)
The match winning try against Samoa, in little space shrugging off and getting past four Samoans much bigger than him (Leota, Levave, Lam and Fa’asalele).

Passing: Whilst his ball carrying has been strong of late, it was Sharikadze's vision and creativity which were the reasons he was originally selected ahead of Zibzibadze.
vs Belgium (February 2013)
In Georgia's worst match of 2013, Sharikadze did somehow manage a good game. Beating the spot blitz with some quick handling nearly creating a try, the territory and pressure gained eventually did lead to a try.
vs Spain (March 2013)
A sort of try that hasn't always been common in Georgian rugby, with an accurate pass Sharikadze put full back Kvirikashvili running onto the ball, into the line and around the defence to create the try.

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