Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Another month of progress for Georgian rugby

A brief summary on a highly positive month for Georgian rugby which saw them unexpectedly return home their Pacific Islands tour undefeated and record their first top 10 finish at the World U20 Championships.

Cast your minds back to June 2012. With nearly all their first choice pack from the Top 14 absent, Georgia took a weakened side to tour North America and were comfortably beaten by both USA and Canada.

Four years later the circumstances were not that different for their June tour of 2016. Only this time Georgia were taking on the more daunting task of the Pacific Islanders in the far tougher foreign conditions of their own backyard.

Even though their opponents were missing key players from the Top 14 as well, and both Samoa and Tonga were entering a transitional period under new coaches after disappointing World Cups, expectations for this tour were not particularly high from a Georgian point of view.

The Lelos had a miserable track record of playing in June with weakened sides, and the tough Pacific conditions that even the All Blacks struggled in last year would have been completely new to the entire squad.

Par for this tour was really only three competitive defeats, but the tour went above all expectation with Georgia only a last minute drop goal away from finishing the tour with three wins. The tour showed obvious progress in strength of depth compared to 2012 and is a major boost for Milton Haig's project to push Georgia on towards the top 10 following the RWC.

The landmark result of the tour was the victory of Fiji. Samoa and Tonga could be said to have understrength squads thrown together against a Georgian group that had more familiarity from the ENC. But Fiji have been the strongest Tier 2 side for the past 18 months, have greater depth and a settled coaching setup. That win also meant Georgia have now completed wins over every Tier 2 side at least once.

The tour's success was again mainly based upon the usual strengths of Georgian rugby. A huge scrum that dominated all opponents and tenacious defence. It wasn't a groundbreaking tour in terms of huge advances, but simply one where Georgia worked at tidying weaker basic elements at lineout and discipline, and crucially appeared to maintain fitness and pressure on their opponents far stronger over the 80 than they have many times in the past.

Georgia's dominance at scrum cannot be understated. The Lelos have thrived under the new laws and gone up another level since November 2014. So far this year Georgia have gained 48 penalties to just 8 conceded at scrum. That's a colossal amount, and it wasn't that long ago in 2013 when the scrum was underperforming badly as a unit.

On this tour they gained 21 penalties at scrum to 4 conceded. They also did so without both their first choice props (both who were acknowledged as among the very best in the Top 14), and went into the Fiji match fielding their fifth and sixth choice tightheads. There is a depth in that position that would have many other sides envious.

Meanwhile in Manchester, the Georgian U20 side also achieved a landmark result of their own. Beating Italy for a first win over a Six Nations side at that level to go alongside their wins at U18 level in recent years.

That result was not so remarkable or unexpected given the last few years of U18 results and the presence of some standout prospects such as Beka Gorgadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze and Otar Giorgadze. In fact they arguably didn't quite reach their full potential as a team, despite reaching the top 10, with coach Ilia Maisuradze saying afterwards there had been issues with their preparation. The main problem over the entire tournament was despite a beastly scrum, the lineout was utterly abysmal so they couldn't profit fully from it and missed a great chance for another Tier 1 scalp over Wales.

Nevertheless, this June was another step forward and a memorable one for Georgian rugby. An away win in Fiji and becoming a top 10 side at Under 20 level are two things achieved for the first time (and also notably two things never achieved by Italian rugby despite numerous more attempts). Whether they can maintain this progress into November will be fascinating.

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