With games against some of the leading sides in the world on consecutive weekends in November, the Autumn Nations Cup is just the sort of test Georgian rugby has been waiting for.
Georgia’s invitation to take part in the one-off tournament came after Japan withdrew because of travel restrictions. A strong showing over the next month will advance their claims to face the world’s top 10 ranked teams on a regular basis.
The Lelos get to play England for the first time outside of a Rugby World Cup, at Twickenham on Saturday 14 November, before taking on Wales at Parc y Scarlets a week later. Georgia’s group fixtures then conclude with a trip to Dublin to play Ireland on 29 November.
A further match awaits them on the first weekend in December, with the opposition dependent on finishing positions in the respective groups.
Raising the bar
Georgia would be breaking new ground if they picked up a win in the group stages as they’ve never beaten any of their rivals before. They have lost to Ireland four times and twice to England and Wales.
On two occasions, though, they have come close to springing a surprise.
At Rugby World Cup 2007, Ireland were relieved to come away with a 14-10 win in Bordeaux, while in November 2018, the Lelos pushed Wales all the way in Cardiff, literally, until uncontested scrums nullified their forward strength and the hosts hung on to win 13-6.
England were head and shoulders above Georgia in winning 84-6 in 2003, but the Lelos’ steady improvement was evident eight years later in Dunedin when they kept the scoreline down to 41-10.
Georgia’s 48-7 defeat to Scotland three weeks ago reflected a less-than-ideal preparation for the Autumn Nations Cup.
Brought in as late replacements for the Brave Blossoms, Georgia have been playing catch-up and will only get better with more time together.
For many of their locally-based players, the Murrayfield match was their first competitive run out since March, and it showed with a disjointed performance.
The postponement of last weekend’s game against Russia in the Rugby Europe Championship 2020 has not helped their cause, either, but making excuses is not in the Lelos’ nature.
Changing of the guard
Since their best-ever showing at a Rugby World Cup in 2015, when they finished third in their pool to gain automatic qualification for Japan 2019, the Lelos have been in a period of transition.
Inspirational head coach Milton Haig has since moved on to be replaced by Levan Maisashvili. Maisashvili is being supported by ex-France hooker Sebastien Bruno, who has come on board as forwards coach.
He can also count on two experienced heads in high performance consultants, Calvin Morriss and David Humphreys.
Morriss previously held the role of strength and conditioning coach with England before enjoying a successful spell with GB Cycling, while Humphreys coached his native Ulster and Gloucester following a glittering playing career.
On the playing front, Merab Sharikadze becomes Georgia’s new captain at the start of a new era for the national team.
For so long they have counted on Mamuka Gorgodze to be their talisman, but the immensely powerful back-row hung up his boots for good earlier this year.
Test centurions, Davit Kacharava and Merab Kvirikashvili, the man he replaced as the team’s all-time record appearance holder, have also called it a day.
The good news for Georgia is that a number of exciting young players have emerged from the World Rugby U20 Championship pathway.
Vasil Lobzhanidze made his name as the youngest player to appear at a Rugby World Cup in 2015 and has raced onto 52 caps in no time whatsoever. His position as the Lelos’ scrum-half is now being challenged by the latest nine to come off the rank, Gela Aprasidze, who is two years younger at 22.
While the perception of Georgia as a mighty forward-based side holds true to some extent, they are trying to evolve their game and fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze is integral to that mind shift.
Abzhandadze did not get much chance to shine against Scotland but his stock is rising. He was handed his first Top 14 start for Brive away to Toulon last weekend and was responsible for compatriot Otari Giorgadze striding in for a try.
It is the tight forwards, though, who are still the most revered. No Top 14 side in France is complete without at least one Georgian prop or hooker, second-row and back-row enforcer.
Beka Gorgadze is one to watch and not just because of the likeness of his name and position to his more famous predecessor.
As well as being a vowel apart, their styles of play don’t follow each other by the letter.
Where Beka Gorgadze is perhaps not as aggressive, he makes up for it elsewhere with his arguably superior skillset, which perhaps reflects the sea-change in Georgia’s thinking as a whole, not that Eddie Jones has acknowledged it.
Jones spoke this week about potentially using a ninth forward to combat Georgia’s physicality, a view that Sharikadze described as “quite weird!”.