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The Fields Of Freedom: Understanding Georgia’s ‘Lelo’ Spirit

Centuries and centuries ago, in the beautiful countryside of the lands that now make up Georgia, the game of ‘Lelo burti’ or ‘field ball’ was played.

Teams could be of any size and usually consisted of the male populations of neighbouring villages. The aim of the sport would be to move a heavy ball across a stream or river in between fields.

The ancient event, still played in the country today, has similarities to rugby union and it is one of the reasons why the Georgian people have embraced and adapted to a western European sport so easily.

And like so many countries from the east of the continent, it has had to emerge from the shadows of the Soviet Union, which had swallowed up many cultures and many identities. Indeed, for much of the 20th century, Georgia’s best players played for the USSR’s team.

EXETER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07: Levan Datunashvili of Georgia looks on as Referee George Clancy blows the final whistle during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Namibia and Georgia at Sandy Park on October 7, 2015 in Exeter, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Levan Datunashvili of Georgia in action against Namibia last October.

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As President of the Georgian Rugby Union, Gocha Svanidze, explained:

“Georgian rugby is unique with its geography, history, genetics and Georgian mentality.

“We have some particular areas in the country, where rugby is more popular than others. For example – in Kutaisi, where rugby is very popular, but we can say that almost every region is known for its rugby lovers.”

Rugby has helped Georgia to rediscover itself and its roots as well as formulate a new identity based on the past but with a view to the future. It is one of the most popular sports in the country and is constantly growing.

Lasha Khurtsidze, Head of International Affairs, elucidates how the GRU is helping to promote the game across the nation: “The schools’ programme in the frame of ‘Get into rugby’ has already been running for two years. According to preliminary data, there are a further 260 schools interested in being involved in this programme. Furthermore, the programmes are being implemented in regions across the country and we think that after four or five years we will double the number of players in Georgia.”

With Georgia’s growth has come success. The 2015 World Cup campaign saw the Lelos defeat both Tonga and Namibia and put in further impressive performances against Argentina and the All Blacks.

EXETER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07: Mamuka Gorgodze of Georgia (c) is congratulated after going over to score the first try during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Namibia and Georgia at Sandy Park on October 7, 2015 in Exeter, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Mamuka Gorgodze of Georgia scores against Namibia at last year’s RWC.

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The country’s governing body, however, is not resting on its laurels and has set itself ambitious targets: “Our short-term goals are to develop a new plan for players and coaches in how they prepare for games. Organisational structure needs to be changed. In the medium term, we want to focus on regional development, which will cover the whole country. This includes the training of local staff – doctors, physiotherapists, etc. Finally, our long-term aims are to take a place in top 10 of the world rankings and become a Tier 1 country.”

Yet, in order to become a Tier 1 country, Georgia needs to be playing Tier 1 sides on a regular basis. Much talk has been made of introducing promotion and relegation to the Six Nations from the European Nations Cup, an event the Lelos have won eight times in the last nine seasons. Svanidze explains the Union’s official stance on the matter:

“We realise that Six Nations promotion and relegation won’t happen in the near future, it has its own procedures and business planning period. But we think that working on creating the concept must start immediately; the leaders of the Six Nations must not just think only about the commercial side of the tournament, but also the development of it. If this won’t change, we are sure there will appear another alternative tournament for Tier 2 countries, which could become a serious challenge for the Six Nations.”

Nor will the head of the union settle for anything less than Georgia players capable of an ‘all-court’ game. It is so easy to label Georgia as a forward-dominated side that prides itself on its set piece and its defence, but Svanidze wants to go much further than that, explaining:

“Our first task is to prepare universal players. We don’t think about the style of rugby, because in the conditions of preparing universal players we will take the best place in the rugby world.”

LLANELLI, WALES - DECEMBER 19: Shalva Mamukashvili of Glasgow is tackled by Rob Evans of Scarlets during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Scarlets and Glasgow at the Parc y Scarlets on December 19, 2015 in Llanelli, Wales. (Photo by David Jones/Getty Images)
Shalva Mamukashvili plied his trade with Glasgow Warriors last season.

For several decades, the majority of Georgia’s top rugby talent has found opportunities for employment in the professional leagues of France and Britain. Indeed, fifteen of the current Lelos squad plays their rugby in these countries. When asked about whether this works for the country or whether he would prefer to see more players based at home, Svanidze says the two can work together:

“We don’t consider these two things as the alternatives of each other. Both of them are our way of development, but it doesn’t mean that they are the only ways. We must extend our geographical reach of where Georgian players are based abroad. But also home championships must be developed as well as the quantity of legionnaires must be increased. But it must be said, that we don’t see Top 14 as the only way of development of Georgian rugby.”

With automatic qualification to the Rugby World Cup in 2019, Georgia can already plan for the tournament like every tier one nation. Svanidze has made the targets for the Georgian side pretty clear: “At least repeat the same result as in the previous World Cup and hopefully overcome the pool.”

When Georgia gained its independence from the USSR in 1991, it had to rediscover itself as a nation standing on its own. Rugby has played a significant role in unifying the people and now it is an integral part of the nation’s culture.

From the ancient fields where Lelo Burti was played to the fields of freedom that rugby pitches across the country represent, Georgia and rugby were made for each other. Hopefully the Lelos will one day stand proudly, shoulder to shoulder with the greatest nations in world rugby.

Paul Wassel, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team. If you would like to join the team, drop us an email at write@punditarena.com.