Given the publicity surrounding the British and Irish Lions series against South Africa, it would be very easy for Georgia to be viewed as the warm-up act before the Springboks embark on the main event.
But the Lelos have proved their credentials as a serious rugby power in their own right over the last decade or so and are not just in Pretoria to make up the numbers.
The world’s number 12 ranked team provide the reigning world champions with their first test since the Rugby World Cup 2019 final 20 months ago and centre Giorgi Kveseladze is confident that they can put in a good performance.
“This is the first time Georgia is in South Africa and we are grateful to South Africa for the opportunity.
“Obviously, it is a big challenge for us on an individual basis and as a team, and it is one we are looking forward to,” said the 23-year-old who has already been capped 33 times by his country.
“We are ready and I think we will put in a good performance and not make it easy for them.”
Does it get any better & more exciting then this?! Check out the Bokke side to face #TheLelos on Friday 🔥— Georgian Rugby (@GeorgianRugby) June 29, 2021
ქურციკების შემადგენლობა #ბირჯღალოსნების წინააღმდეგ დასახელდა, რომელშიც ერთბაშად 18 მსოფლიო ჩემპიონია🏉 https://t.co/zhaXovvcAo
A big deal
While Friday’s match at Loftus Versfeld will be the first time Georgia have played South Africa since Rugby World Cup 2003, matches against more established rugby nations have become more prevalent in recent times.
Kveseladze cites the Autumn Nations Cup campaign in 2020, in which he scored a brilliant try against Ireland, as a major step forward in the Lelos’ standing as a team.
“At the Autumn Nations Cup, we gained a lot of experience against Tier One teams, and now we’re playing against the world champions which is a very big thing for us. It will only help us to develop as a team in the future,” he said.
For a team so dominant in the second tier of European international rugby, the Autumn Nations Cup gave Georgia the sort of regular weekly challenge they had only previously experienced at Rugby World Cups.
After a tough opening game against England which ended in a 40-0 defeat, Georgia made Wales work hard for an 18-0 win before Kveseladze, and the Georgia team as a whole, gave Ireland a scare. Ireland won 23-10 but the second half was ‘drawn’ 3-3.
The Autumn Nations Cup then finished with a 38-24 loss to Fiji, both teams playing their part in an entertaining game in atrocious conditions.
For Georgia, the Autumn Nations Cup may have resulted in a clean sweep of defeats but the improvements in terms of their attack were clear.
Now, as well as a renowned pack, they have a midfield combination in Kveseladze and captain Sharikadze that will always keep opposition defences ‘honest’, while teenager Davit Niniashvili is a real asset to the back three.
Kveseladze says playing alongside Sharikadze “is a pleasure” but also credits his move to English Premiership outfit, Gloucester, for his good form.
“I’ve been there four months and I think I am playing as well as I have ever been,” he said.
“I hope I can keep on improving because I am playing with very professional players in a very professional environment which helps a lot.”
After the Autumn Nations Cup, it was business as usual for Georgia as they completed another unbeaten Rugby Europe Championship campaign.
A 48-15 win over the newly-promoted Netherlands made it 20 wins on the bounce in the competition and gives them a very healthy lead in the race for qualification for Rugby World Cup 2023.
“We made many mistakes in the first half but we discussed them at half-time and we managed to cut out the errors,” said Kveseladze, reflecting on the game.
“In the end, we were happy because we have won the Rugby Europe Championship again and have taken another step towards qualifying for the next World Cup.”