Tuesday, 11 February 2014

How good were Italy in the 1990's compared to Georgia today?


A statement frequently made in regard to Georgia and the topic of 6 Nations expansion is that the Italians were much better at the time they were added to the tournament in the 1990’s. Here we explain why that statement is a highly dubious one.

What is fact is that Italy recorded several wins against Tier 1 nations, 4 during the period following the 1995 World Cup and their admission into the 6 Nations. However the context of those wins must be considered, the Italians had 24 Tier 1 fixtures over that period, 9 of which were home games, in the other 20 they suffered crushing defeats, competitive losses and near misses as well. The international environment was completely different in the 90’s, sides outside the Tri Nations or 5 Nations played the others with far more regularity, Italy played all the Home Nations in under a year between December 1997 and November 1998.

Since the 5 Nations became 6 though, these fixtures for Tier 2 sides have completely dried up. Georgia, the European side currently the strongest outside the 6 Nations and ENC champions in 6 of the last 7 years, hasn’t even hosted a Tier 1 side in their entire history never mind 9 matches in just 4 years. Outside of the World Cup, the Lelos have played just one match with Tier 1 opposition over the past 10 years (a match they hardly got the best preparation for as well).

The changes in the international schedules have been massive since the 90’s and are now far more weighted to Tier 1 vs Tier 1 games, fixtures such as Wales against Australia for instance has occurred 15 times in over just the last 8 years. If any potential new versions of Italy were around today they would never be able to get those wins that the Azzurri achieved in 1997 and 1998 as they simply wouldn’t have played the games, if Italy in the 90’s had Georgia’s schedule of only playing Tier 1 opponents at the World Cup just and one away game to Argentina they would have exactly the same amount of Tier 1 wins.

The decade of the 90’s was one that was far kinder on the sides outside the 5 or Tri Nations, as well as Argentina and Italy (both who would go onto to enter those tournaments), all of Canada, Fiji, Samoa, Romania, Tonga and Namibia got Tier 1 scalps at some point in the decade. Unlike now where the Tier 1 nations have advantages in the few games that there are on the calendar such as more rest at World Cups, more preparation time and rarely playing away the field was more level back then for Tier 2 teams to cause an upset.

So it is palpable that reaching the conclusion that the Italian side of the 90’s was far superior on the basis of those notable wins is hardly a fair one, and with Georgia having such a paucity of fixtures against Tier 1 sides it difficult it judge. If Georgia had 24 fixtures with those sides over 4 years then in recent efforts they have not come so far off in recent games that they couldn’t get the rub off the green in a couple of them and gotten wins, especially if sides travelled to Tbilisi where the Lelos have a very strong record, recently beating Samoa last November.

Whilst comparing the Italy side of the mid to late 90’s to the current Georgian one leaves no clear answer, what is however pretty clear is that Georgia are now considerably better than the Italian side that finally reached the 6 Nations was.

Italy suffered several thumpings
whilst they were rebuilding in

the early days of the 6 Nations
In 1999 Italy significantly slumped, that year they played 8 Tier 1 matches with an average losing margin of 53 points. Both New Zealand and South Africa put a century on them, England 67, Wales 60 and even Fiji racked up a half century on their visit to Italy, and the Italians lost their only winnable World Cup match to Tonga. It was a truly horrendous year and the subsequent ones in the early 6 Nations days were rebuilding ones as they gradually picked themselves back up and recovered. There is no way Georgia today would not be getting thrashed by anything like those margins to those sides, even a largely reserve Japanese team still kept the score below three figures playing the All Blacks during their 2011 World Cup game.

Malkhaz Urjukashvili scores to
give Georgia the lead in their
only ever match with Italy in 2003
Georgia’s only ever full Test match against Italy was in Asti not long before their World Cup debut in 2003, and that was a very competitive match and the Lelos led up until 53 minutes and in injury time were trailing by only 4 points before a try in the dying minutes saw Italy win by 9, and that was despite conceding 4 cards throughout the game. Now Georgia are massively better now than they were then, before that game they had never played in a World Cup and finished just 3rd in the ENC that year, now they have won it 6 times in 7 years, played in 3 World Cups, have over 35 players in the Top 14 or Pro D2 and beaten Samoa and gave Ireland an almighty fright. Italy too are considerably improved on their early 2000’s version and are still slightly the better team but comparing Georgia now to the early 6 Nations Italy and it’s the former that fares the better.

The final point to be made is that both Italy and Argentina really ought not to be the template for any potential future expansion of tournaments. Both were added too late and as a result got thrown into the deep end whilst in rebuilding phases and with key players either retired or well into their 30’s. In future, if there are teams like them they should be added in the midst of their era so that it allows them the chance to achieve more of their big wins actually in the tournament.

1 comment :

  1. Good article and analysis! Italy and Argentina certainly benefitted from playing many matches against the established rugby nations. As result, they improved and started to win some matches against them. Georgia does not get this chance. I hope they will get some more games against tier one opposition.