Todays’s fixture against Georgia may not be the most glamorous tie in the eyes of Irish rugby fans but for Ireland’s Georgian community it’s a weekend of celebration and recognition of their love for the sport.
Shota Maisuradze is a Georgian ex-pat and rugby fan that has been living in Dublin since 1997. By his estimates there are between one and two hundred making the trip to Dublin for the game.
Many have arrived over the weekend on connecting flights from Istanbul. As with most rugby fixtures there is a social element to proceedings and plans for dinner and post match drinks amongst the Georgian community are in full swing.
“The whole nation was delighted when we heard that we were going to play Ireland. Hopefully every year, we will get to play the bigger European sides, this would be a great experience for our younger players,” Shota said.
It is a sentiment echoed by many emerging rugby nations whose players often play and contribute to foreign leagues with very little recognition from the fixture committees at rugby’s top tables.
For Georgian players, a club contract in France has always been the goal. The Franco-Georgian connection has been vital for the growth of the game in Georgia.
This relationship goes back to 1997 when French coach, Claude Saurel was tasked with assessing the standard of the game in Georgia. Saurel’s work helped boost the profile of the game so much so that it is now the country’s most popular team sport.
In post soviet Georgia, rugby now offered opportunities to travel and work abroad, something that was not ordinarily open to most citizens. Lucrative contracts in France meant that interest in the game peaked. It is an interest that remains to this day.
“Because of the French connection, many of today’s young players from the ages of 16 and up are trying to get into French academies, like Clermont, Toulouse or Montpellier.
“They train them in France and they keep them there so they don’t end up playing for Georgian clubs. This the problem because Georgia is not a rich country and there is not a lot of money in Georgian rugby so players try to find better countries to play in,” Shota said.
The French connection is very much a double-edged sword. While French clubs offer Georgian players an opportunity to make it at as professionals, the Georgian domestic game is suffering from a serious talent drain.
Georgian television airs a Top 14 highlights show every week, which is extremely popular amongst Georgian rugby fans as they can see first hand how their compatriots are getting on abroad.
“In Georgia we don’t know much about the All-Ireland league or the Guinness Pro 12 but we do know about Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht from playing the French clubs in the European Cup”
According to Shota, the Georgian domestic league is still competitive when compared with the Romanian league but that it’s biggest threat is from the Russian league, which now has better salaries and facilities that than Georgian clubs.
Ireland versus England is always a huge rivalry for both sets of fans, I asked Shota what was Georgia’s big rugby fixture every year.
“In rugby our biggest game is against Romania. Politically our biggest game is against Russia but for me and for most Georgian fans, it is always Romania. We have been rivals fighting to win the nations cup most years. There is a long history to the fixture and the games are always 50/50,” Shota added.
An old rugby adage declares that forwards are the piano movers and backs are the piano players. It’s a phrase that fits very well with Georgian rugby and something that Shota certainly agrees with:
“We have many great forwards, mostly props and back rows playing with big clubs in France but our backs are not as good and here is where Georgia has problems,” Shota declared.
They have produced gargantuan forwards like Mamuka Gorgodze of Toulon and Clermont tight head Davit Zirakashvili both of who are injured for Sunday’s test.
Like the Italians, they Georgians have never been able to develop a backline with requisite guile capable of capitalizing on their forward grunt.
Proof if ever it was needed that it is a lot easier to get somebody to move your piano that it is to get someone to play it. If Georgia are to move on to the next level then a new generation of rugby pianists are badly needed.
Raffaele Rocca, Pundit Arena.