Thursday, 17 November 2016

Georgia's inability to dominate weaker sides on the scoreboard finally catches up with them in surprise defeat to Japan

Georgia came into this November off the back of a record win over Romania and a successful tour of the Pacific Islands. The bubble was burst however during their upset loss to Japan, where old demons came back to haunt them as they played to the worst stereotype of Georgian rugby, and their hopes of reaching top 10 in the rankings for the first time before the end of the year went up in tatters.

The defeat was one of the most disappointing under Milton Haig's reign. There have been some comments post-match attempting to portray the Japan team as a decent side similar to one at the World Cup, who were just "underestimated" and that the result wasn't even that much of an upset.

Whilst it's certainly a positive trait to credit your opponents, the fact of the matter is that some have been saying that whilst avoiding some truths that need to be confronted.

First of all that was not at all a good Japanese side. The chasm between the calibre of each sides' forwards in particular was gargantuan. About 5 maybe even 6 of the Georgian pack are individuals who would be in the discussion in regards to a Tier 2 World XV. Meanwhile Japan were fielding the weakest pack for many years, full of inexperienced rookies and only including two players who had made their debut before this year.

The rankings may have said the sides were evenly matched (and they are usually when Japan have their best side), but Georgian fans are kidding themselves if they think they weren't up against a significantly weaker opponent last Saturday who ought to have been put to the sword. Georgia will face better packs in the REC than that Japanese one.

Secondly, this match continued along a pattern that has made watching Georgia exasperating at times when they are facing weak opponents. To borrow a phrase, it's like watching a marionette trying to hammer a nail.
Image result for georgia portugal rugby
Georgia struggled past bottom placed
ENC side Portugal in 2015 only
scoring one try in a 20-15 victory.

Georgia have consistently in recent times spluttered past sides they should be hammering. The most notable example being Namibia at the RWC, where they flirted with a result that would have wrecked their entire tournament. But it's also happened numerous times against the likes of Spain or Portugal in the ENC as well. There were hints against Romania they might have been progressing out of this habit, but clearly not.

The trend is usually Georgia dominating possession and territory (which they had 65% and 69% of vs Namibia last year), gaining penalties at scrum largely at their leisure, but continuously bungling try after try. Even if they do end up winning these matches in the end, the scoreboard rarely reflects their dominance and they are torturous to watch. Georgian fans should offer enough credit to their own players to demand much better and not accept performances like we saw last weekend from them.

But they do end up winning all those matches though. Partly as opponents in the ENC rarely offer much threat themselves and they also rarely concede a try in the ENC. Occasionally a side can get a couple breakaway tries and a bonus point, like Spain did in 2014 for instance, but not enough to win.

However eventually their habit of failing to make their dominance over weaker sides count on the scoreboard was going to catch up with them. Which is what we saw against Japan, who despite being massively overmatched in the pack did have a good distributing midfield and some real speed on the wings to create and score tries against the run of play.

The loss was a shock for Georgia, but there is a possibility the taste of defeat may do the side good in the long run having really shone a light on their major shortcomings.

Milton Haig has always said from the start he was planning to expand Georgia's game beyond the pack. And his side do use the backs more than they used to, but that's also part of the issue. It's one thing attempting it and it's another to execute it successfully in a match.

The Lelos have some excellent ball carriers in the pack and a strong pick and go game. But it's a lot easier for an opponent to throw three players at Gorgodze or Kolelishvili every time they get the ball, when attempts to spread the defence finish up like this ...

Or like this (from good turnover possession) ...

Here we saw Georgia playing wide invariably more like lead to turnovers for the Japanese than any attacking gains. The general standard of passing and catching skills on display was unacceptable, and the backs in particular made far too many errors.
Image result for Richard Graham rugby
Georgia's newly appointed backs
coach Richard Graham.

If Haig and his new backs coach Richard Graham (former Wallabies backs coach under Robbie Deans) are serious about bringing about a better attacking game from the backs, they may need to start making adjustments in personnel, which will probably need to involve promoting younger talent and cutting out those now over 30 who lack the required skillset.

Ultimately attempting to play with the backs simply never going to work if you have a fly half who stands deep and does not possess a remotely adequate passing game and pretty much kills off any chance of using width of the pitch effectively.

There are certain players in the backline right now who are primarily of use as very brave solid defenders. This may be of great use playing New Zealand, or when you have to make over 200 tackles against Tonga. But in games such as last Saturday, where Georgia had command of possession for the most part and just made 38 tackles the same players get exposed.

Separately question marks persist about how much longer Georgia can persist with a full back whose large unforced error count remains a massive liability. Really every position in the backs aside from their three players playing in France (Lobzhanidze, Sharikadze and Mchedlidze) should be under review and alternative options coming under consideration.

Haig has resisted making swift change for the time being, but in the upcoming REC he surely has to look to the future with players like Revaz Jinchvelashvili (who impressed at 10 with the U20 team in 2015 where, unlike the senior team, Georgia could actually put sizeable scores on weaker opponents for a change) or Irakli Svanidze.

This upset against Japan is only a minor setback, and if took this defeat for the team to finally deal with the problems they've had in these sorts of matches they should be winning by comfortable margins, then it may even be of use in the longer term.

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