When Georgia finished third in the inaugural World Rugby U20 Trophy in Chile in 2008, Lasha Khmaladze was left with a feeling that they could have achieved so much more.
Khmaladze was one of nine starting players from the bronze medal win against Romania that would go on to be capped at test level, highlighting the quality of the group.
And as far as the 32-year-old is concerned, on another day it could have been them, not semi-final opponents and eventual winners Uruguay, who had their name etched on the trophy.
Georgia would have to wait a further seven years for that to happen, by which time Khmaladze was a well-established international.
“I remember the tournament (in Chile) very well. We had a balanced team and started well,” he told World Rugby.
“Uruguay was the only team we lost to – in the semi-final. Afterwards, I thought we could win nine times out of 10 against this team, but this is what rugby is like.
“At a crucial moment, we lost that particular game and did not get another chance.
“Victories are not made by individual players, each team member’s attitude matters. I think we were all very nervous on that day and made a lot of mistakes because of this.
“For a decisive game, you need to have a totally different attitude, and you have to channel your anxiety elsewhere.”
Khmaladze scored four tries in Chile and it wasn’t long before his talent was recognised by the Lelos management.
In graduation terms, his conversion from U20 player to full international was not quite as rapid as Handré Pollard, for whom barely a fortnight passed before he stepped up a level. But it wasn’t long before the Tbilisi-born player was handed his big chance.
Just two months after returning from Chile, Khmaladze made his senior debut against Emerging South Africa in the World Rugby Nations Cup in June 2008.
“After Rugby World Cup 2007, the team had new coaching staff – Tim Lane and Levan Tsabadze, who invited me to join the extended squad in winter. I trained with the team for a while and then they let me go. I did not expect I would be called back so soon!” he recalled.
Now 12 years into his international career, Khmaladze has won 82 caps – a joint record for U20 Trophy graduates shared with Uruguay’s Diego Magno.
But the three-time Rugby World Cup competitor has never forgotten his roots and the importance of age-grade rugby to his development.
“Playing for the Lelos was my childhood dream, although I could never have imagined then the excitement and emotion that I’d feel being part of the team and pulling the jersey on,” he beamed.
“At every stage, I faced new challenges and got a new experience. Each win or loss brought some new knowledge, which grew bigger from game to game. I believe that international experience is important for any player, especially at an early age.”
Georgia has a fine tradition of promoting its finest young talent to the senior team – 47 players have been capped after playing in either the U20 Championship or U20 Trophy.
And Khmaladze is fully supportive of the process, even if it means a young tyro threatening his place as the side's playmaker.
“The Georgian national team did not start with us, we were preceded by many great players who left behind their fame, their motivation and tradition,” he pointed out.
“This tradition is passed from generation to generation, and we form a large family. This is how we welcome every new member, no matter whether he comes from the Under 20 team or has not played in any junior national team.”
Players to watch
Fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze is a recent example of someone to make the seamless transition, and Khmaladze believes some of the current Junior Lelos will follow suit.
“This is just my personal opinion, but U20s captain Deme Tapladze is smart in defence and efficient in attack,” he said.
“Other players to consider are Sandro Svanidze, who always manages to get an advantage, and Akaki Tabutsadze, who is surprisingly quick, though I think he still has a lot of work to secure his position in the national team. Each of them is motivated, and I am sure they will go far if they work hard enough.”
Despite his advancing years, Khmaladze is not ready to step aside just yet, his sights are firmly set on RWC 2023.
“I will do all I can to help Georgia qualify for France 2023 and stay in the team. That is my biggest goal.”